The Monkey Wrench, a bar in the Highlands neighborhood here, was to host a March Sadness event Friday night. Fans planned to gather to watch taped broadcasts of the three games in which the Louisville men’s basketball team won national championships, from 1980, 1986 and 2013. Wearing red was required, and, per tradition, the song “Mahgeetah” by the Louisville band My Morning Jacket was to be played after victory was secure.
“I guess we’re going to play ‘Mahgeetah' three times,” said the owner of the Monkey Wrench, Dennie Humphrey, “because we’re going to win all three of these games.”
The somber get-together was a welcome distraction. The most college-hoops-mad city in the country – Louisville is routinely the top market when it comes to television ratings – is hosting an NCAA tournament regional this week in the same year its favorite team’s season was cut short by a scandal unsavory even by the low standards of big-time college sports.
Louisville self-imposed a postseason ban in February in connection with an NCAA investigation into accusations that a former basketball staffer paid prostitutes to entertain players and recruits in university housing. The charges, which have reportedly resulted in a criminal probe, have aggravated unrelated controversies involving the university’s administration.
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Adding insult to injury, Louisville, under coach Rick Pitino, was terrific this season, finishing 23-8 and No. 14 in the Associated Press poll after the regular season. Its two seniors were transfers from less accomplished programs who said they had wanted to play in just one NCAA tournament.
If Humphrey was on one part of the Kubler-Ross spectrum of grief, Larry Benz, the chairman of the University of Louisville’s board of trustees, described the city’s mood this week as elsewhere: “There’s a lot of ennui.”
Though the Cardinals would not have been eligible to play tournament games in their home arena, the KFC Yum Center, locals still have experienced the indignity of four foreign fan bases coming to cheer their own. Outside the arena on Thursday night, the fans wearing red were there to back Maryland.
For a city that prides itself on a few distinctive, idiosyncratic features – chiefly bluegrass, bourbon, basketball and an annual horse race – the circumstances have been as hurtful as the home team’s absence from the postseason.
“There is a little brother component to the city,” said Aaron Yarmuth, executive editor of the alternative newspaper LEO Weekly. “We want to be mentioned with Austin, Portland, Nashville.”
If Louisville the city can feel overlooked in favor of more prominent islands in the hipster archipelago dotting the country, Louisville the basketball program has its own overshadowing rival much closer to home: the Kentucky Wildcats. Kentucky’s men’s program has the most Division I wins in history, and a fan base that will not let anyone around here forget it.
Since Cal got there, there has been a sense that we did it the right way. Now we don’t have that to stand on.
Aaron Yarmuth, executive editor of the alternative newspaper LEO Weekly
This was the first time in nine seasons that neither Louisville nor Kentucky had made the NCAA tournament’s second weekend, and Kentucky was the one with the better excuse: It lost. “A lot of fans are as equally relieved that the archrival is out of the tournament,” Benz said. To prove his point, he noted that many residents of this city just across the Ohio River from Indiana give their secondary allegiance to the Hoosiers, who eliminated Kentucky last Sunday.
Even so, the Louisville scandal’s unsavory nature and the accusation that it involved cheating in recruiting has caused soul-searching among Cardinals fans. They had felt that between their program and Kentucky’s – whose coach, John Calipari, has had Final Four runs at two of his previous stops vacated by the NCAA – theirs was the clean one.
“Since Cal got there, there has been a sense that we did it the right way,” Yarmuth said, adding, “Now we don’t have that to stand on.”
Pitino has denied involvement in, and knowledge of, the parties, which were said to have been arranged by a former Louisville staff member and player, Andre McGee. Many people here expect Pitino to survive the scandal. Instead, anger over the mess has flared out in multiple directions, with the NCAA an obvious target of Louisville fans.
“I feel frustrated,” Henry Hopson, a Louisville fan, said at a bar around the corner from the arena Thursday night. “The players involved were not around. It’s like putting you on trial for your grandfather.”
But many also have tired of James Ramsey, the university president since 2002. Ramsey has been accused of misallocating funds and inappropriately drawing additional compensation from other sources, and he caused a stir last Halloween when a picture surfaced of him and his staff members dressed in Mexican outfits, complete with sombreros (he later apologized).
“James Ramsey hasn’t been the most-liked person here lately,” said Andrew Peterson, a senior at Louisville who comes from a town about 40 miles south of the city.
The devastation of this year was really like taking your girlfriend away or something.
Dennie Humphrey, owner of the bar Monkey Wrench,
Part of the reason is that it was Ramsey who made the ultimate decision to self-impose the ban, a pragmatic move even though the optics – a university pulling the rug out from underneath its players in the middle of the season – were less than optimal.
“Feels like U of L cares about the university, not the students and the team,” another fan, Craig Shively, said.
So this week, the big screen at Fourth Street Live, a blocklong complex of bars and restaurants downtown, would not be showing a Louisville game. Proprietors would not benefit from the extra income that comes with a Cardinals postseason run. The program and the community would have to wait till next year.
“The devastation of this year was really like taking your girlfriend away or something,” said Humphrey, the bar owner, as he continued preparations for Friday’s March Sadness therapy session.
Others were more stoic. Rick Streicher showed up at a different bar near the arena Thursday night wearing several pieces of Louisville gear.
“What do you think I’m going to wear?” he said. “Villanova?”