In our new series, Curious Louisville, we answer your questions about our city. Today we turn our attention to the rivalry between the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky men’s basketball teams.
Some call it the greatest rivalry in college basketball, and both programs have a lot to boast about.
Our question comes from Leah Roberts, an actress for Stage One Family Theater, an analyst for Humana and an avid Cardinals fan. We met up at the Kentucky Center for the Arts, where she just finished a Christmas performance.
She asked: “What is the ratio of UK to U of L fans in Louisville?”
Roberts said the question came to her while surveying the crowds at Rupp Arena, the home of the Cats, and the KFC Yum Center, the Cardinals’ home.
“When you’re in Lexington, it’s a sea of blue, smatterings of red here or there,” she said. “But when you’re in Louisville it seems you see a lot of UK fans.”
I am a University of Kentucky graduate, but also consider myself a Louisville fan — more on that shortly.
A Bit of History
Kentucky got a head start over Louisville in establishing a major basketball program. Under coach Adolph Rupp, UK won the first of its eight national titles in 1948 and starting building a large fan base. UK’s most recent title came in 2012, following the hiring of John Calipari in 2009.
Louisville has had a basketball program since the 1940s when it was a small, municipal school, but didn’t emerge into a national power until decades later. Under Coach Denny Crum, the Cards won national titles in 1980 and 1986. The program has continued to thrive under Crum’s successor, former UK coach Rick Pitino, winning it all again in 2013.
Jefferson County used to be dominated by Big Blue. But U of L’s growth as an institution and its successes in basketball and other sports have boosted its fan base here. Even more than a decade ago, a Courier-Journal Bluegrass State poll found that the majority of respondents preferred U of L men’s basketball and football to UK.
Since then, both basketball programs have won NCAA titles. And assuming recent scandals that rocked U of L haven’t cost them a lot of fans, it would seem logical that the Cardinals have held on to their edge — or even increased it — in Jefferson County.
But statewide, the Wildcats still hold a large lead. A Public Policy Survey last year found 66 percent of Kentuckians considered themselves UK fans. Nineteen percent called themselves Louisville fans.
That difference might help explain the proliferation of blue shirts at the Yum Center. But then there’s also the unofficial UK slogan:
“The saying is ‘Blue gets in.’ They find their way in,” said Tom Leach, the radio voice of the Wildcats, describing UK fans’ ability to invade opposing arenas beyond their allotment of tickets.
That elicits an eye roll from many diehard U of L fans. And that leads to another directly-related question:
Is it possible to be both a Louisville and Kentucky fan?
“It is, but it’s weird,” says Rick Grieve, a professor of psychology at Western Kentucky University, where he studies sports rivalries and fan followings. He spoke about the U of L/UK rivalry at the Louisville Forum last week.
“The way this works is I’m a fan of both teams, and I want them both to do well, until they play each other,” he said. “And then at that point, you’ve got to make a decision.”
That’s what Patrick Schmidt deals with often, as both an attorney living in Louisville and president of the 4,400 member UK Alumni Association of Jefferson County.
“The rest of the state is kind of insulated from U of L’s success to some extent; I have to hear it more,” Schmidt said with a laugh.
In his position, Schmidt has to work and play nice with the Cardinal faithful, in addition to fans in his own family. He said the rivalry actually helped strengthen the bond between him and his grandfather, a staunch Cardinal supporter.
“Some of my favorite memories are me and my grandfather going out with my friends to bars to watch UK or U of L play, and cheering as hard for each others’ team as ours,” he said. “Again, when we were playing each other, we were at each others’ throats, but Grandpa softened me on U of L.”
But most fans aren’t so magnanimous. Fifty-six percent of the people who responded to a poll on wfpl.org said it’s not possible to be both a UK and U of L fan.
And the voice of the Wildcats, Tom Leach agrees. He believes for most fans, you can’t have it both ways.
“There’s a certain level of fandom where most fans get to, where it’s hard to say you’re rooting for your rival,” he said. “So you’d respect them but I don’t know that people would root for them.”
Questioner Leah Roberts has reached that level of fandom.
“I started off, you know, ‘I’ll root for UK anytime they’re not playing U of L,’ but I quickly learned that that wasn’t feasible for me to continue,” she said with a laugh. “I now root for anyone who’s playing against UK.”
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