When North Carolina looked to hire a basketball coach earlier this decade, some Kentucky fans, always thinking, saw an opportunity to dispose of Tubby Smith.
Basketball elder statesman C.M. Newton, the former UK athletic director, scoffed at the notion of Smith leaving UK for UNC.
"Why would Tubby want to take a step down?" Newton said.
When reminded this fall of that observation, Newton smiled self-consciously and said, "That was my Kentucky pride talking."
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Kentucky pride and the notion of stepping up or down to North Carolina hang heavy in the air with college basketball's two winningest programs set to play Saturday in Rupp Arena.
Tradition. All-Americans. Coaching giants. Winning. National championships. The basketball gods have abundantly blessed UK and UNC.
Yet in this competitive business, only one program can sit at the summit. After a century of games, four victories separate UK and UNC. Too close for comfort for Kentucky, which never tires of trumpeting its basketball superiority. Too inconsequential to distract North Carolina, which claims winning must be harnessed to doing things the right way, in powder blue parlance "the Carolina way."
UNC spokesman Steve Kirschner acknowledged the program's allegiance to "the Carolina way" causes skeptics to see "a certain sense of arrogance."
Dan Issel, the career scoring leader for Kentucky, sees North Carolina basketball as snooty.
"Most of the guys I know who played at Carolina have an inflated value of what that is," he said. "They have too big an idea of the North Carolina program, and they think it's the greatest."
However, veteran columnist Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe accepts the notion of North Carolina being about more than piling up victories.
In a column for Basketball Times last year, Ryan wrote of North Carolina, "No other program so clearly stands for something."
Ryan elaborated in a follow-up e-mail, writing that coaching icon Dean Smith made the Tar Heels a winner in more than the scoreboard sense of the term.
"Carolina means Dean's stamp: T-E-A-M," Ryan wrote. "Standing up and applauding your teammates. Acknowledging the passer. It may all be (B.S.) now, but that was the foundation."
And the Kentucky way?
"Kentucky stands for Wildcat Lodge, in which priorities are all out of whack," Ryan wrote. "Carolina at least pretends there is another reason why a kid goes to the school."
On the court, the Carolina way requires the scorer to point to the passer as a way of saying thank you. Reserves stand and clap for a player being substituted out of the game as a way to show appreciation for a teammate's contribution. Players rush to help up a teammate who takes a charge.
"It really wasn't a system," said Auburn Coach Jeff Lebo, a point guard for North Carolina in the 1980s. "It was more a philosophy of how to play."
Even 20 years removed from his playing days, Lebo said he still gets recognized in Alabama as a former North Carolina player. "It makes me feel pretty cool," he said.
The Carolina way extends off the court, too, Kirschner said. In the early 1990s, UNC's radio and television rights holder bought a $2 million video screen for the football stadium. The school kept it in storage for a year because of the overall poor economic climate at the time. "We felt it'd send the wrong message to faculty if we put up a video board," Kirschner said.
At Kentucky earlier this year, the school's Board of Trustees ignored protests and accepted a $7 million gift requiring the name Wildcat Coal Lodge be placed on new housing for the men's basketball team.
Big Blue vs. Powder Blue
Of course, being a former Kentucky player carries an aura, too.
When asked to define "the Kentucky way," Larry Conley, one of Rupp's Runts from the 1960s, cut through any niceties.
"Win," he said. "Win, win, win.
"And I think they're going to win. John Calipari is going to bring them back."
Entering Saturday's meeting in Rupp Arena, Kentucky has 1,995 victories and North Carolina has 1,991.
"It's important to the spirit of Kentucky basketball," fan Charles Wofford of Lexington said of UK maintaining its lead. "We've had it for so long; it's inbred."
North Carolina Coach Roy Williams has dismissed the importance of which program has the most victories or reaches 2,000 victories first.
But Williams did raise an objection after an earlier game at UK when he heard the public address announcer declare Rupp Arena home to "the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball." Williams noted that he had coached at Kansas and now North Carolina.
Not that UK plans any changes to its grand pronouncement, which also appears on a wall in its Craft Center practice facility.
Public address announcer Patrick Whitmer said he will continue to declare Kentucky's greatest tradition even if North Carolina goes ahead in all-time victories.
"Just the overall tradition, I believe, is stronger," Whitmer said.
Calipari puts a priority on staying No. 1 and reaching 2,000 victories first.
"We have to get to 12 wins before North Carolina gets to 16," he said at the Kentucky Association of Basketball Coaches convention in September. "I know that. I think we're scheduled to do that."
For North Carolina fan Tom Harbin, Calipari's hiring in the spring reinforced the belief that Kentucky is more single-minded than North Carolina in its pursuit of victories.
"It's important enough for them to be happy for the coach they just got with all the problems that happened at his previous coaching locations," Harbin said.
Calipari's programs at Massachusetts and Memphis had Final Four appearances vacated because of NCAA rule violations. Memphis is appealing that ruling.
For the Tar Heels, winning is "not as important as doing things the Carolina way," Harbin said.
Not that winning isn't important at North Carolina. Kirschner acknowledged that UNC fired John Bunting as football coach and Matt Doherty as basketball coach.
"Those are Carolina guys," Kirschner said. "They love the school. They were bringing in good kids. Academics were important to them.
"But, yet, we still were not going in the right direction," he said of the firings. "And that's awfully hard for our people to do."
Harbin, 67, suggested North Carolina was the better program academically.
"We kind of like to think we just have a — I hate to say it — a classier program," he said.
In the last five listings of graduation rates released by the NCAA, North Carolina outperformed Kentucky by a wide margin. UNC's basketball program had a graduation rate of 75, 86, 86, 70 and 82 the last five rating periods. UK had ratings of 31, 38, 23, 33 and 33.
North Carolina also has the better record in NCAA rules compliance. Only once has North Carolina been found to have committed major violations. That case is dated Jan. 10, 1961.
Kentucky has four cases of major violations on its rap sheet, though none in the past 20 years.
The race to 2,000 and beyond
Kentucky and North Carolina vying for the most victories is nothing new. In the wake of NCAA rules violations in the late 1980s, Kentucky's once-sizable lead (87 at the end of Issel's senior season) had vanished.
North Carolina passed Kentucky in 1989-90, the season Rick Pitino arrived and began transforming a program saddled with the label Kentucky's Shame (the famous Sports Illustrated headline) into a national power again.
UK regained the lead in Pitino's national championship season of 1995-96 and led by 49 victories after the 2003-04 season.
During the early 1990s, each program discovered "lost" victories. This caused suspicion on both sides.
In 1990-91, Kentucky found a "lost" victory over Louisville, which enabled UK to tie North Carolina for the top spot.
A disc jockey in Louisville tipped off Kentucky about the "lost" victory, said Chris Cameron, then UK's sports information director. Cameron said he was simply following up on a project begun by his predecessor, Brad Davis, to recheck UK records.
A year later, North Carolina found five "lost" victories.
The man who headed that search, Dave Lohse, said his fetish for accuracy led to a two-year effort to update North Carolina's incomplete records.
"I never wanted to go back in history to find victories," he said of the research. "That was really the nerdy side of me coming out."
Ratings guru Jeff Sagarin crunched numbers this year and declared Kentucky as the No. 1 program in college basketball history. UCLA was second, Kansas third and North Carolina fourth.
Ironically, Sagarin said the number of all-time victories had nothing to do with his ratings. "It's irrelevant," he said. The more important factors were quality of competition and where games were played.
Decade by decade, Sagarin rated UK as the No. 1 program in the 1950s and 1990s, plus second in the 1940s. He rated North Carolina No. 1 in the 1980s, and second in the 1970s.
Even if Sagarin dismisses the importance of all-time victories, Kentucky fans value that distinction.
When it was suggested that an all-time victory total was merely a number, fan Jerry Roberts of Ashland said, "Well, it's our number."
UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. put a high priority on Kentucky maintaining a lead in all-time victories.
"It's extremely important," he said. "Have no doubt about it.
"That's why I turn into an A-No. 1 fan and want to see us continue to keep that record."
Just a number?
"You know better than that," Todd said. "It's not just a number. It's bragging rights. It's history. It's something we've had a long time, and we intend to keep it."
There's no reason to believe North Carolina will fall by the wayside. Conley predicted that UK and UNC will continue being, well, UK and UNC, far into the future.
"One hundred years from now, they'll still be five games apart," the Rupp Runt said. "Who knows who will be on top?"
Top Cats and Tar Heels
Naismith Hall of Fame members
Kentucky (6) — Adolph Rupp, Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey, Dan Issel, C.M. Newton, Pat Riley.
North Carolina (9) — Bernard Carnevale, Frank J. McGuire, Dean Smith, Billy Cunningham, Bob McAdoo, Larry Brown, James Worthy, Roy Williams, Michael Jordan.
Players currently on NBA rosters
Kentucky (9) — Kelenna Azubuike (Golden State), Keith Bogans (San Antonio), Chuck Hayes (Houston), Jamaal Magloire (Miami), Jodie Meeks (Milwaukee), Nazr Mohammed (Charlotte), Randolph Morris (Atlanta), Tayshaun Prince (Detroit), Rajon Rondo (Boston).
North Carolina (13) — Vince Carter (Orlando), Wayne Ellington (Minnesota), Raymond Felton (Charlotte), Daniel Green (Cleveland), Tyler Hansbrough (Indiana), Brendan Haywood (Washington), Antawn Jamison (Washington), Ty Lawson (Denver), Sean May (Sacramento), Rasheed Wallace (Boston), Jawad Williams (North Carolina), Marvin Williams (Atlanta), Brandan Wright (Golden State).
Comparing the programs
All-time records: UK 1,995-621, UNC 1,991-704
All-time win pct.: UK .763, UNC .739
NCAA titles: UK 7, UNC 5
NCAA Final Fours: UK 13, UNC 18
NCAA tourneys: UK 49, UNC 41
NCAA tourney wins: UK 98, UNC 102
Hall of Famers: UK 6, UNC 9
All-Americans: UK 47, UNC 49
1,000-point scorers: UK 57, UNC 62
NBA first-round picks: UK 20, UNC 39
Currently in NBA: UK 9, UNC 13
Kentucky (7) — 1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996, 1998.
North Carolina (5) — 1957, 1982, 1993, 2005, 2009.
North Carolina Leads 21-10
Year Winner, score Site
1924 UNC, 41-20 Atlanta
1929 UNC, 26-15 Lexington
1932 UNC, 43-42 Atlanta
1950 UK, 83-44 Lexington
1959 UK, 76-70 Lexington
1960 UK, 70-65 Greensboro, N.C.
1962 UNC, 68-66 Lexington
1963 UK, 100-80 Lexington
1964 UNC, 82-67 Charlotte, N.C.
1966 UNC, 64-55 Lexington
1967 UNC, 84-77 Greensboro, N.C.
1968 UNC, 87-77 Lexington
1969 UK, 94-87 Charlotte, N.C.
1972 UNC, 78-70 Louisville
1973 UNC, 101-84 Greensboro, N.C.
1974 UK, 90-78 Louisville
1975 UNC, 90-77 Charlotte, N.C.
1977 UNC, 79-72 College Park, Md.
1981 UNC, 82-69 East Rutherford, N.J.
1989 UNC, 121-110 Louisville
1990 UNC, 84-81 Chapel Hill
1995 UNC, 74-61 Birmingham, Ala.
2000 UK, 93-76 Chapel Hill
2001 UK, 79-59 Lexington
2002 UK, 98-81 Chapel Hill
2004 UK, 61-56 Lexington
2004 UNC, 91-78 Chapel Hill
2005 UNC, 83-79 Lexington
2006 UNC, 75-63 Chapel Hill
2007 UNC, 86-77 Lexington
2008 UNC, 77-58 Chapel Hill
College basketball's all-time winningest programs by number of victories:
1. Kentucky 1,995
2. North Carolina 1,991
3. Kansas 1,976
4. Duke 1,882
5. Syracuse 1,760
Last five years
North Carolina 164-27