University of Louisville

Home field not always a good thing in rivalry

Dustin Luck (baseball cap) and Tyler Sargent carried the Governor's Cup off the field after Kentucky's 31-27 victory last season at Commonwealth Stadium.
Dustin Luck (baseball cap) and Tyler Sargent carried the Governor's Cup off the field after Kentucky's 31-27 victory last season at Commonwealth Stadium.

If past is prologue, Kentucky will have an advantage Saturday when it kicks off our state's marquee football rivalry against Louisville in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.

The advantage is that Kentucky will be in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.

Modern Governor's Cup history can be summed up in three words: Road teams rule.

Even with the home school winning three of the last four, visitors are 9-7 in UK-U of L football matchups since 1994.

The Cardinals are 6-4 in what has been, for them, the friendly confines of Commonwealth Stadium.

At 3-3, UK has a better winning percentage against Louisville in the Derby City than it does against the Cards in Lexington.

This morning, the question on the floor is why? Why have visitors fared so well in our state's signature football series?

"I've thought a lot about that, but I've never been able to come up with one answer," says veteran U of L radio play-by-play man Paul Rogers.

I've thought a lot about it, too, and I don't have one answer, either.

After conferring with participants/observers of the rivalry, I do have theories.

Familiarity breeds confidence

When it comes to in-state recruiting, UK and U of L are fishing from the same talent pool.

The commonwealth's best high-school prospects are apt to attend multiple games in Papa John's and Commonwealth before their college careers begin.

"When I played there, we had guys from Louisville or who had visited Louisville and they were comfortable there," said former Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzen. "They had guys who were from Lexington or had visited us and they were comfortable (in Commonwealth Stadium). The whole intrastate thing explains this."

Tom Leach, Kentucky's radio play-by-play man, said that both UK and U of L usually have a nucleus of home-state players. Those players, Leach says, tend to be from Kentucky's best high school programs.

"The players on both teams grew up competing against each other or playing with each other," Leach said. "I think that means they have a confidence level going against each other that, maybe, you don't have going into an SEC road game or a Big East road game."

Seesaw effect

For various reasons, the UK and U of L football programs rarely seem to be on the uptick at the same time.

From 2003-2006, Louisville won four times in a row, including twice in Lexington. In that time, UK was dealing with the aftereffects of the Hal Mumme-era NCAA probation.

In the last three seasons, Kentucky has won all the games (including one in Papa John's). The Cats' success came after U of L made what turned out to be a bad coaching hire in Steve Kragthorpe.

The fact that both teams so rarely seem good at the same time may make home-field advantage less relevant.

"It's weird, but it does seem when one of the programs is up, the other one is down and vice versa," Rogers said. "I'd say that may play a factor in allowing road teams to win."

The nature of rivalry?

Greg Nord, the ex-long-time U of L assistant and current member of Joker Phillips' Kentucky staff, says there is not a great mystery as to why visiting teams have fared well in claiming the Governor's Cup.

In a heated rivalry, the rules of normal competition are off.

"This thing is a battle royal," Nord said, "and a rivalry overwhelms" normal considerations.

While road teams have gone 9-7 since 1994 in Kentucky-Louisville, they are 8-8 over the same time frame in Alabama-Tennessee.

In Auburn-Alabama, visitors are 7-9; with Michigan-Ohio State, road teams are 6-10; they are 5-10-1 in Florida-Florida State.

This Saturday, UK figures to face a rowdy crowd. New Louisville coach Charlie Strong seems to have the Cardinals fan base re-energized after the gloom of the Kragthorpe era.

U of L will be unveiling a Papa John's Cardinal Stadium newly expanded to a capacity of 55,000.

Of course, if past is prologue, "stadium games" don't tend to turn out well for the home team in UK-U of L football.

In 1998, when U of L opened Papa John's, Kentucky put a 68-34 smackdown on the Cards.

The next year, when UK unveiled an expanded Commonwealth Stadium, the red-and-black returned the favor, 56-28.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader