University of Louisville

Revisiting the roots of the UK-U of L rivalry

Former University of Kentucky athletics director Cliff Hagan looks forward to the Wildcats playing the University of Louisville.

"It's become the premier game on Kentucky's schedule," he said this week.

Former UK coach Joe B. Hall sees the Kentucky-Louisville game as an irreplaceable gem on the Cats' schedule.

"Without it, I don't know if you have a good, strong rivalry," he said.

Former U of L coach Denny Crum calls the game "the right thing to do."

Bill Olsen, the U of L athletics director when the current series began in 1983-84, says the rivalry has "far exceeded" what he and others originally envisioned.

This solidarity of warmth for the big show in Rupp Arena on Saturday represents an evolution of thinking impossible to envision 27 years ago. Then UK and U of L were basketball's Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann.

From 1922 until 1983, the two schools only 80 miles apart did not play a regular-season game. The mandates of the NCAA Tournament brought UK and U of L together four times in that period.

It took the executive power of then-Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., to force Kentucky and Louisville — well, just Kentucky — onto the same basketball court.

"I was determined to get U of L and UK to play," Brown said this week.

When asked why, he said, "First of all, it's the right thing to do. They should play. They're both supported by the taxpayers of Kentucky. ... Rivalries are healthy. That's why we have sports. Give the fans the kind of entertainment and competition they're excited about. They should have been playing 30 years before."

Enthused by an unforgettable NCAA Tournament region final game the teams played in Knoxville in the spring of 1983, Brown called UK Board of Trustees chairman Bill Sturgill, who coincidentally was secretary of energy in the governor's cabinet.

Brown reminded Sturgill of an unfulfilled promise that then-UK president Otis Singletary would get the trustees to approve the idea of playing Louisville. Then Brown added a threat.

"If you can't get it done, I'll come over there," Brown said. "I'll be over there by noon."

Ray Hornback, then UK's vice president for university relations, noted that talk of the taxpayers and an angry governor barging into a Board of Trustees meeting made an impression.

"Oh, a hell of a lot," Hornback said. "Because he works up the budget. If you don't have the governor on your side, you're in trouble. He's omnipotent and he's all powerful."

The trustees approved the idea.

This compelling and necessary basketball fix has had plenty of memorable moments: freshman Rex Chapman's coming-out-party in the so-called Big Brother-Little Brother Game, Cedric Jenkins' last-second tip-in, Rick Pitino's return to Rupp as U of L coach, Patrick Sparks' winning free throws inside the final second.

Yet when asked what stood out in his mind, Olsen said, "How hard it was and how long it took."

Crum, whose first season at Louisville (1971-72) coincided with Adolph Rupp's last at Kentucky, lobbied for a series. Coming from UCLA, where the Bruins shared the same city as conference rival Southern Cal, Crum couldn't understand why Kentucky and Louisville did not play.

Olsen, then coaching U of L's freshman team, wrote Hall, his counterpart at UK, to suggest dipping a toe in the water: a game between the two schools' freshman teams.

UK had the so-called Super Kittens, which Crum had the temerity to suggest were not as a good as Louisville's freshmen.

"We probably could have filled Freedom Hall for that game," Olsen said. "Joe Hall wrote me back. He just said they would not be able to work it out."

Olsen chuckled at the memory.

"I found out later Adolph Rupp refused to play us," Olsen said. "It surprised me. I really didn't realize how the line had been drawn and how adamant they were against playing.

"I thought we could do it. I knew Joe personally. We were friends. I thought he'd say, sure, let's do it."

In the next decade, Hall and UK officials cited a custom of not playing in-state schools established by Rupp.

When he became U of L's athletics director, Olsen broached the subject with Hagan at national meetings. Hagan, whom Olsen considered "the nicest person in college athletics," politely suggested they go to dinner with their wives and discuss other subjects that might bring agreement.

"They didn't want to give us any inroads in terms of recruiting," Crum said. "They had the advantage throughout the state and they wanted to maintain that advantage. If they never played us or acknowledged us, they'd be able to keep that."

It became increasingly difficult to ignore Louisville as Crum guided the Cardinals to the Final Four in 1972, 1975, 1980 and 1982.

The tipping point came in 1983 when the NCAA Tournament bracket had Kentucky and Louisville advancing to the Mideast Region finals in Knoxville.

U of L's 80-68 overtime victory made the thought of an annual game seem like nirvana.

"It was so important winning that for the status of our program," Olsen said. "There was less of a feeling at the University of Kentucky that they had as much to lose as they felt before. We earned a position to be treated in a special way."

By that, Olsen meant U of L could be treated as an equal.

Once Hagan and Olsen agreed to the terms of a contract, all that remained was for both sides to sign. But where? Lexington or Louisville were too partisan. Hagan rejected Frankfort. "I think we've had enough politicians involved," he told Olsen.

Hagan then suggested Shelbyville.

Olsen recalled Hagan saying, "I'll meet you in front of the (county) courthouse. I'll be driving a red Thunderbird.

"I thought that was kind of good, him driving a red car," Olsen said.

For the momentous signing of the contract, Hagan and Olsen went to the Long John Silver's restaurant in Shelbyville.

"Cliff treated me to a Pepsi," Olsen said.

Now, 27 years later, Hagan and Hall speak glowingly of what they once resisted.

"It's a bigger game nationally than you realized," Hagan said. "It's not just an in-state game."

He suggested the highly charged atmosphere will pay dividends in the post-season. "You better have this experience or you're going to be eliminated in the first round of the NCAA," Hagan said.

Hall noted how the UK-U of L game can help both coaches better judge their teams. It also stimulates the players to work hard in practice.

Recalling the policy of not playing in-state schools that he once used to resist a game against Louisville, Hall said, "It's worked out well. I wish we hadn't had that policy."

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