LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- What does this game mean? We've been hearing the question for a month as regards the annual rivalry game between the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky.
What does it mean to Joker Phillips? What does it mean to Charlie Strong? What does it mean to in-state recruiting, to national reputation, to U of L's conference situation, to UK's bowl chances?
So many meanings. There are two groups you hear less about. The fans.
An irony, I guess you could call it, is that these two fan bases have great enmity for each other, yet in this sport, they are not dissimilar. They are loyal, longsuffering, and hungry.
For a great many of them, basketball is work. Basketball is where you expect excellence, where you require a baseline of national leadership and anything less is underachievement.
But football, for many years, has been fun. It has been tailgating. It has been supporting teams that less loyal fan bases would not support. In recent years, it has been frustration. But they show up anyway, for the love of the sport, of the team, of the university, of the friendships. They have showed up to be a part of the great college football pageant. Even when the football was bad, the drinks were cold, the grill was hot, the stories were embellished and the ritual was rewarding.
And the football has not always been bad. In fact, in recent history, it's been pretty good. Tim Couch and Chris Redman. The Petrino years at U of L. Randall Cobb and College GameDay at UK. Since these teams resumed play in 1994, football, not basketball, has become the chief college athletic talent export of this state.
There will be U of L fans in the tailgate lots today who remember crowds that didn't reach 10,000 at old Cardinal Stadium. They'll remember Lee Corso and Bob Weber and the sport's near-extinction at U of L.
Howard Schnellenberger not only brought U of L football back to life, he taught a university and a city about the culture of college football. When U of L beat Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl, like when it won its first college basketball national championship, it signaled an era of possibility for the university.
The studies show that sports have less impact on a university's fortunes as a whole than many make them out to have. But to have followed U of L for a long time is to have witnessed how national prominence in one can spill into the other. If U of L could go from barely having equipment to play with to winning a Fiesta Bowl, anything was possible.
When some of those same fans look from the parking lot up at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium today, they'll see it as something they built, when critics said it would never be full, when there was no money from the state.
At UK, football has always been a labor of love. From the day Bear Bryant left UK for more football-fertile ground, it has been a program and fan base looking to escape its own basketball shadow against the giants of college football's most powerful conference. It not only has fought against talent and resources, but against culture.
UK fans, through all of it, have remained a loyal constant. There has been more heartbreak than reward. They've had the ball jerked away from more than Charlie Brown. But they don their blue, plug Tom Leach's voice in through their earbuds and work themselves back to a place of optimism before every kickoff, if only to abandon it for resignation often by the third quarter.
When the program beat LSU a few years back, charged into the Top 10, played host to Florida with College GameDay on campus, it signaled to everyone at the school that, yes, this kind of football relevance was possible.
To have fallen back onto hard times after that, perhaps, has caused the first crack in decades of demonstrated loyalty. Season ticket sales are down more than 20 percent. The mood of UK fans was dampened even before the remnants of a hurricane were forecast to be passing through.
For Charlie Strong, the game could mean the beginning of a season that stamps him as a true big-time football coach. For Joker Phillips, it could be the beginning of a season that solidifies his status after two seasons without a bowl.
For U of L an impressive win will retain its place in the Top 25 moving forward, while a loss might knock it from those ranks for the rest of the season, no matter what else it does. For UK, a win might bring a few more of the faithful back to Commonwealth Stadium, while a loss will turn up the heat on its head coach.
But for the fans, it means something more special than that -- and really, more special than simple bragging rights, though those have their value.
For the fans of these two schools, winning the game gives them reason to believe. And as fans of both programs will tell you from their fleeting flirtations with the big-time, there's nothing better than believing in something and seeing it come to life in front of you.
The growth of this rivalry itself is testament to the persistence of those fans over many years. That's why it ought always to be played. That's why it means a little more to many of them than whatever the final scoreboard shows.
Copyright 2012 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.
Sign Up for the WDRB Sports Newsletter
Thank you for signing up! You will receive a confirmation email shortly.
Monday, May 20 2013 10:38 PM EDT2013-05-21 02:38:47 GMT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Teddy Bridgewater doesn't ask for much. So when he told University of Louisville football coach Charlie Strong and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson that he wanted to ask somethingMore >>
Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is certainly going to be a Heisman Trophy candidate to start next season, but he has told coaches he doesn't want a Heisman publicity campaign.More >>
Monday, May 20 2013 12:41 AM EDT2013-05-20 04:41:21 GMT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The scene is always the same. After every University of Kentucky basketball home game, the coach walks across the Rupp Arena court, puts on his headset and starts talking withMore >>
Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari will do things a bit differently with his young but talented Wildcats team this season.More >>
Saturday, May 18 2013 7:11 PM EDT2013-05-18 23:11:28 GMT
(AP Wires/WDRB) -- Oxbow has won the Preakness, ruining Orb's bid to capture the Triple Crown. Oxbow led from start to finish. It was the sixth Preakness victory for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne LukasMore >>
Oxbow has won the Preakness, ruining Orb's bid to capture the Triple Crown.More >>
Saturday, May 18 2013 7:54 AM EDT2013-05-18 11:54:38 GMT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Longtime golf commentator and 1964 U.S. Open champion Ken Venturi died today, and there's nearly no need to add to the tributes that surely will come, because there's a greatMore >>
Ken Venturi left a lasting memory in Louisville when he opened Hunting Creek Country Club's championship course with a record that still stands, and with a simple gesture to a sportswriter 25 years later.More >>
Tuesday, May 14 2013 5:25 PM EDT2013-05-14 21:25:36 GMT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- I like Andrew Wiggins. Here's a kid who didn't want to make a spectacle of his recruitment, despite being the top-ranked basketball recruit in the nation and being hailed as theMore >>
Eric Crawford surveys the carnage of the Andrew Wiggins circus, and ponders what it means for the future of civilization.More >>
Sunday, May 12 2013 11:30 PM EDT2013-05-13 03:30:46 GMT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Alabama football coach Nick Saban simply said out loud what people have been talking about for some time last week during a stop on his offseason "Crimson Caravan."RespondingMore >>
Alabama coach Nick Saban's idea for power conference football team to play only teams from other elite conferences sounds good -- but most programs would never accept it.More >>
Saturday, May 11 2013 10:26 AM EDT2013-05-11 14:26:43 GMT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The NCAA basketball rules committee has wrapped up its most recent round of talks with more tweaks.It didn't reduce the shot clock, but it did try to streamline the video reviewMore >>
Ten suggestions to get the game of college basketball moving again. More >>