Mark Story

Kentucky-Louisville basketball rivalry as we’ve known it is gone

Rick Pitino, left, and John Calipari before the 2013-14 regular-season game between Kentucky and Louisville in Rupp Arena. Pitino went 2-8 as Louisville head coach against Calipari-coached Kentucky teams.
Rick Pitino, left, and John Calipari before the 2013-14 regular-season game between Kentucky and Louisville in Rupp Arena. Pitino went 2-8 as Louisville head coach against Calipari-coached Kentucky teams. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

The dramatic collapse of the Louisville men’s basketball program beneath years of scandal finally culminated Wednesday with the ousters of Rick Pitino and Tom Jurich.

In the course of University of Louisville sports history, this is the darkest day.

Although many — but not all — University of Kentucky fans were glorying in the demise of their archrival, the fall of U of L hoops is a loss for UK as well.

Louisville is all but certainly headed for further NCAA sanctions after an FBI investigation of shady financial dealings in the world of college basketball recruiting allegedly revealed a U of L assistant participating in a plan to funnel $100,000 to the family of a prized recruit.

It means the days when the annual UK-U of L hoops Armageddon rivaled North Carolina vs. Duke for college basketball’s premier rivalry are over for the foreseeable future.

That’s a loss for our state.

Pitino’s legacy in the commonwealth was defined in so many ways by his role in the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry.

When he came to UK from his job as New York Knicks head coach in 1989 to clean up a scandal-ridden Wildcats basketball program, he delighted Cats fans by dominating Denny Crum and Louisville, going 6-2 against the Cards.

Of course, after Pitino was fired from the job — head coach of the Boston Celtics — that he left UK to take, he infuriated the Big Blue Nation by returning to the commonwealth as head man of UK’s archrival in 2001.

For all the fury his return generated, once Pitino switched his neckties to red, he mostly found only frustration when facing his old school.

In 18 games against UK as U of L head man, Pitino won only six. In NCAA Tournament meetings vs. Kentucky, he went 0-2.

After UK hired Pitino’s longtime coaching rival John Calipari in 2009-10, the antagonism between the coaches infused Cats-Cards — which burnt white-hot already — with an extra dimension of competitive friction.

As theater, the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry was never more interesting than in the Cal vs. Ricky P. years. Competing with Kentucky in the Calipari era often seemed to bring out the worst in Pitino.

He went 2-8 vs. Calipari at Kentucky, including losses in the 2012 Final Four and the 2014 NCAA Tournament round of 16.

In the 2015-16 season, the Louisville coach was photographed flipping the bird to a heckling Kentucky fan after U of L had missed a potential game-winning shot and absorbed a two-point loss to UK in Rupp Arena.

With Calipari signing one five-star recruit after another, some Louisville fans complained that Pitino was not keeping pace. In retrospect, you wonder if it was that pressure which led to some questionable decisions on recruiting practices in the U of L basketball offices.

With Pitino’s departure and Louisville all but certainly facing a period of rebuilding, its rivalry with UK will likely wane, as well.

So who is Kentucky’s archrival in basketball now?

UK has never defined itself by how it fares against the SEC schools it traditionally dominates.

The Wildcats no longer play Indiana.

North Carolina, Duke and Kansas rotate on-and-off the Kentucky schedule but are not annual foes.

College sports without an archrival is as bland as unflavored yogurt.

For U of L, its current rival is uncertainty. The NCAA is still weighing Louisville’s appeal in the “strippers/escorts for recruits” scandal. Now, the FBI allegedly has a Cardinals assistant on tape working out details of a six-figure payment to the family of a recruit.

Louisville needs to throw itself on the mercy of NCAA justice and ask for an expedited ruling on the latest case.

Even if its gets the NCAA death penalty, it’s better to know. It will be impossible for U of L to move forward until it has certainty on what it faces.

On a bleak day, the good news for Louisville is that a basketball team can be rebuilt far more quickly than a football program laid low by scandal.

As Kentucky fans of the early 1990s saw, you only need one great player surrounded by four or five other solid players to thrive.

U of L’s best path to climb out of the mess Rick Pitino is leaving is to follow the blueprint Rick Pitino used when he lifted Kentucky basketball from a similar hole.

In the meantime, our state will soon find out what a college basketball season without UK-U of L as the most-anticipated game is like.