University of Louisville

Mark Story: In the UK-U of L rivalry, it's time for a 'reset' in attitudes on both sides

Kentucky Wildcats forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) stole the ball from Russ Smith,2, as #18 Kentucky defeated #6 Louisville 73-66  on Saturday December 28, 2013 in  Lexington ,Ky.  Photos by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) stole the ball from Russ Smith,2, as #18 Kentucky defeated #6 Louisville 73-66 on Saturday December 28, 2013 in Lexington ,Ky. Photos by Mark Cornelison | Staff

Judged from the long arc of history, the Kentucky-Louisville sports rivalry is a fairly recent phenomenon. The Cats and Cards did not begin playing regularly in men's basketball until 1983 and in football until 1994.

Perhaps that's why the underlying "rivalry dynamic" of the intrastate competition so often seems off.

That dysfunction was on display again last week with Mark Stoops pulling out from the traditional preseason Governor's Cup luncheon/news conference, an event that had long featured the Kentucky and Louisville head coaches together.

In the aftermath, familiar patterns were on display. In almost any interaction that involves U of L, Kentucky can't seem to help itself from coming across as heavy-handed. The hullabaloo in Louisville in response to Stoops' decision — the UK coach didn't come to lunch, must mean they're trying to end the football series — suggested a lingering level of U of L paranoia about its standing in the rivalry.

So, 31 years into the modern UK-U of L competition, in the season in which Louisville joins the Atlantic Coast Conference, it's time for a "rivalry reset."

1.) Between Kentucky and Louisville, there is no longer a "big brother" and a "little brother."

There are five power leagues in college sports, and UK (SEC) and now U of L (ACC) are each in one.

Since 2005, Louisville teams have played in three men's basketball Final Fours, three baseball College World Series, two BCS bowls, two women's basketball Final Fours and one men's soccer national title game.

So if Louisville ever was UK's "little brother," as Eddie Sutton famously claimed in the run-up to the 1986-87 Cats-Cards men's hoops game, it has long since grown up.

For Kentucky fans, that ought to be liberating.

From the time UK was pulled kicking and screaming into an annual basketball series with U of L in 1983-84, many Wildcats backers have viewed the relationship between Kentucky and Louisville as one in which any U of L success imperils UK's standing inside our state.

Well, 2012-13 saw Louisville enjoy a year for the ages, winning the Sugar Bowl and the men's basketball NCAA championship and playing in the women's hoops national title game and the baseball College World Series.

UK was so "damaged," it came back in 2013-14 and enjoyed one of the great athletic years in its history. Kentucky's men's basketball team reached the NCAA finals and its women's softball program made its first College World Series appearance. UK finished a best-ever 11th in the Directors' Cup standings, a measure of all-around athletics success.

In head-to-head meetings with Louisville across all sports, Kentucky went 9-4.

Meanwhile, Public Policy Polling released in January results of a statewide survey that asked about sports allegiances in the commonwealth. Coming off "The Year of the Cardinals," 63 percent of voters in Kentucky identified themselves as UK fans; 20 percent said they were Louisville backers.

All of which should tell UK supporters that they can accept a normal rivalry with Louisville without the fear that doing so is somehow helping U of L steal all that Kentucky has.

2.) Can we please stop talking about the Kentucky-Louisville football series ending?

When word got out last week that Stoops was not going to appear with Bobby Petrino to preview the 2014 battle for the Governor's Cup, a torrent of fretting over the future of the series was unleashed.

For all the kvetching that seems to go on every summer about the sustainability of Cats-Cards football, there's almost no rational reason Kentucky would not want to play Louisville.

Since 1994 the Cardinals have appeared in Commonwealth Stadium 12 times. In that span, a game with Louisville has been Kentucky's best-attended home game of the season six times.

Setting aside Vanderbilt, UK has won exactly four SEC East games — Georgia in 2006 and '09; South Carolina in 2010; Tennessee in 2011 — so far in the 21st century.

Meanwhile, Kentucky is 8-12 in its modern series against Louisville. That is eight wins the UK football program has produced that really meant something to its fan base. Given its historic difficulties winning in the SEC East, if UK stopped playing Louisville where would its move-the-needle victories come from?

(People say if the SEC goes from eight to nine league games a year, UK's response will be to end its series with U of L. I wouldn't bet on that, but, regardless, the SEC has already announced league schedules with eight conference games through 2025).

As an ACC school, Louisville no longer has to justify its standing among the college sports big boys (and girls). The ACC had the same number of schools (five) finish in the Top 20 of the Directors' Cup standings in 2013-14 as the SEC did.

Louisville is playing basketball in a league with Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse. The Atlantic Coast Conference is not at the SEC's level in football, but a U of L 2014 schedule that includes Florida State, Clemson, Miami and Notre Dame is no joke.

All of which should tell U of L fans that they should feel secure in a normal rivalry with Kentucky and let go of any "chip on the shoulder" mentality formed from years of perceived UK disrespect.

In the Kentucky- Louisville rivalry, 2014-15 offers the chance for a new day. Both sides would do well to embrace it.

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