If there is such a thing as Big Blue Hell, this weekend is its fiery (red) apex.
Exactly three months and four days after the Louisville Cardinals football team beat Florida to win the Sugar Bowl, Rick Pitino's U of L men's basketball squad will face Wichita State on Saturday on college hoops' grandest stage, the Final Four. On Sunday, the surprising U of L women's team will meet California in the national semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.
There has never been a better time to pledge allegiance to the Louisville Cardinals.
For those loyal to University of Kentucky sports, that means what exactly?
This weekend, should Kentucky followers root against Louisville out of the raging partisanship of intra-state rivalry? Should UK backers root for U of L out of state pride?
Or, difficult as it might be, is the best path for a Kentucky Wildcats loyalist to go Switzerland during U of L's epic Final Four weekend and maintain a strict neutrality?
To get answers, we asked a series of sports figures — most of whom have direct ties to UK athletics in some form — a simple question:
Are you rooting for Louisville's basketball teams to win this weekend?
Jeff Sheppard, the ex-UK guard who was named Final Four Most Outstanding Player after leading Tubby Smith's Wildcats to the 1998 NCAA title, is rooting for Louisville.
Sheppard's reasoning is personal. Back before he switched sides in our state's defining sports rivalry, Pitino was the coach who recruited Sheppard out of Peachtree City, Ga., to Kentucky. Sheppard was a key reserve on Pitino's 1996 NCAA title team at UK.
"The number one reason I want Louisville to win is Rick Pitino," Sheppard said. "It's the number two and number three reasons, too."
Living in Laurel County, Sheppard acknowledges that a lot of Kentucky-born Wildcats fans he knows will not be rooting for U of L this weekend. "A lot of the born-and-bred Kentucky residents, Kentucky fans, are a little warped in their fandom," Sheppard said, laughing. "My wife and kids are like that, they won't root for Louisville. But I'm pulling for (U of L) this weekend. Completely."
Kenny Walker, a star UK forward in the 1980s, played for Pitino in the NBA when Ricky P. was leading the New York Knicks. That's why Walker said he will be pulling for U of L.
"Oh boy, that will probably get me in trouble with the Kentucky fans," Walker said, laughing. "But I am rooting for Louisville. My excuse is I played for (Pitino) when he was with the Knicks."
Tom Leach, the radio play-by-play voice of UK football and men's basketball, said he, too, has his own reasons for backing Louisville in the Final Four. Start with his friendship with U of L radio announcer Paul Rogers.
"It was a nice moment for me to get to call a championship last year for Kentucky," Leach said of UK's 2012 men's NCAA hoops title. "I would love to see Paul get that opportunity."
State pride is pushing others with ties to UK to pull for U of L this weekend.
"I want Louisville to win," said Vernon Hatton, the Final Four star for Adolph Rupp's 1958 NCAA title team. "I'm always for UK first, but UK is not there. (Louisville) is a Kentucky basketball program, and I am always for teams from Kentucky."
Alan Stein, the former Lexington Legends executive, said, "I am for (Louisville). I want (the state of) Kentucky to be successful in whatever way we can."
Keyla Snowden, a long-range shooting specialist on the UK women's hoops teams that reached the NCAA tourney round of eight in 2010 and '12, said she "honestly, does not care" how the Louisville men fare Saturday against Wichita State.
"I wouldn't mind seeing their girls win," she said of the U of L women. "I know a few of their players, and I have a lot of respect for the job their coach (Jeff Walz) has done there."
Victoria Dunlap, the star of UK's 2010 team that fell to Oklahoma one victory short of the Final Four, laughed when asked if she will pull for Louisville's hoops teams, men's and/or women's, this weekend.
"It's kind of an awkward question for me because Kentucky and Louisville are rivals," she said. "Let's just say I'm not planning to cheer for them. And I'd prefer Kentucky was in it."
Leach laughed when asked if he thinks most Kentucky fans will pull for Louisville in the Final Four. "Uhm, no," he said.
It doesn't take a real long visit to a UK sports-oriented Internet message board to find that some Cats supporters, seemingly, would rather have an ice pick driven into their eyeballs than root for the Louisville Cardinals.
To choose three such posts from the UK site of Rivals.com:
1.) Can't believe anyone that is a true UK fan would actually root for U of L; 2.) Never. Ever. Will I pull for U of L. Ever; 3.) I hate each and every one of you rooting for U of L.
John Spalding is a UK fan living in Atlanta who, along with a partner, produces the Season Never Ends, a Wildcats-sports-themed calendar. Asked if he can make himself root for Louisville this week, Spalding said, "I want them to ... "
There was then a long pause, before, in a surprised tone of voice, Spalding said, "Actually, I want them to win."
"See, I'm not one of those fans that worries that Louisville can ever pass Kentucky in popularity or even in having a better program over the long term," Spalding said. "But if they win this national championship, then in the eyes of the nation, that makes the UK-U of L rivalry look even bigger. And I think that's good for the state."
Kevin Ware factor
Stacey Reed was a star guard for the UK women's program in the 1990s. Today, she is Jeff Sheppard's wife. She acknowledges that, as her husband said, it is her normal rule to root against Louisville.
Yet not this week.
In the case of the U of L women, one of their top players, Rockcastle County product Sara Hammond, is from the same part of the state where Reed once starred in high school in Laurel County. "Because of Sara, I am for them," she said.
On the men's side, Reed said her normal antagonism toward Louisville softened after the gruesome broken leg suffered by guard Kevin Ware in the Midwest Region finals last Sunday against Duke.
"I will probably root for them because I thought they showed a lot of character from Coach Pitino to his players in how they dealt with Kevin's situation," she said.
So, Wildcats follower, it's your choice: Are you rooting for Louisville in the Final Four(s)?
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @markcstory Blog: markstory.bloginky.com