Before the annual matchup between Louisville and Kentucky became known as the Battle for the Bluegrass State, legendary Cardinals coach Denny Crum referred to the rivalry by another memorable nickname.
He dubbed it the "rivalry that never was."
Almost six decades had gone by without the state of Kentucky's two premier basketball programs meeting in a regular season game by the time Crum led Louisville to its first national championship in 1980. Neither repeated requests from Louisville officials nor frequent public jabs and taunts by Crum were enough to inspire tradition-rich Kentucky to reassess its longstanding policy of not scheduling in-state opponents.
"There was definitely a time when I didn't think it would ever happen," Crum said. "I thought it would be good for basketball, but they were the university in the state at the time and I think they felt they had nothing to gain by playing us. I think they didn't want to recognize anyone else in the state was at their level."
With Kentucky and Louisville set to meet for the 29th year in a row on Saturday in Lexington, it's almost unfathomable the two in-state rivals went 61 years without facing one-another in the regular season. The annual matchup has become one of the most anticipated games on the college basketball calendar since its 1983 revival, commanding a national TV audience, sellout crowds and a secondary ticket market so strong that even nosebleed seats sell for hundreds of dollars.
The rivalry might still be just a gleam in Crum's eye were it not for the unintentional yet business-savvy decision made by the NCAA selection committee to place Kentucky and Louisville in the same region in 1983. The Cardinals staged a stirring rally from a 12-point second-half deficit and won 80-68 in overtime, earning a spot in the Final Four and inspiring the state governor at the time to put pressure on both schools to hammer out an agreement for a series starting the following season.
"I believe in my heart had we lost that game, they wouldn't have played the next year," said ex-Louisville star Scooter McCray, a starting forward and fifth-year senior on the 1982-83 team. "They already had a few championships, they would have gone to the Final Four and they would have beaten us head-to-head. Maybe the series would have started eventually, but they wouldn't have had anything to prove."
The genesis for Kentucky's initial disinterest in playing Louisville dates back to the success the Wildcats achieved under coach Adolph Rupp.
When Rupp captured four national championships at Kentucky in the 1940s and 50s, his non-conference scheduling philosophy was to reserve a few games for marquee national opponents and use the rest for buy games that allowed the program to pile up wins and ticket revenue. He saw no need to play begin a series with Louisville or another in-state program when those slots on the schedule could be reserved for high-profile programs at the time like Indiana, Kansas or North Carolina.
"It became an unwritten policy from Coach Rupp to make the decision not to play any state schools for that reason," said Joe B. Hall, who took over for Rupp in 1972 and remained coach at Kentucky until 1985. "If you played one, then you would be setting the precedent to play all of the state schools. So to avoid any conflict with any of them, there was an unwritten policy when I took over at UK not to play any state schools."
If the intermittent success achieved by Louisville or Western Kentucky during Rupp's tenure generated at least some interest a matchup with Kentucky, then the clamor became stronger once Crum began leading the Cardinals to unprecedented heights. Louisville reached the Final Four in 1972, 1975, 1980, 1982 and 1983 under Crum, raising its stature to a level no other program in the state besides Kentucky had previously reached.
Crum enticed the likes of UCLA, Indiana and Notre Dame into scheduling regular games with Louisville, but he also recognized that a series with Kentucky was vital to the Cardinals elevating their stature in their own state. The problem was no amount of lobbying or cajoling from Crum or Louisville athletic director Bill Olsen seemed to make any impact on Kentucky's willingness to negotiate.
"What I recall the most was a conversation I had with Earl Cox, the sports editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal at the time," Olsen said. "Earl told me, 'You're just wasting your time trying to schedule Kentucky. They won't play in your lifetime or my lifetime.' As much as I hated to admit, I thought he was probably right."
The anticipation for a Kentucky-Louisville showdown increased during Crum's tenure thanks to the Cardinals' sustained success and two near misses in the NCAA tournament. In 1975, the two schools would have met in the national title game had Louisville not fallen in overtime to John Wooden's final UCLA team in the semifinals. And in 1982, Kentucky spoiled a potential clash by falling to underdog Middle Tennessee State in the opening round.
When third-seeded Kentucky beat Indiana 64-59 and top-seeded Louisville topped Arkansas on a tip-in at the buzzer in the 1983 Mideast Regional semifinals, the hype for the long-awaited matchup between the Cardinals and Wildcats began immediately.
The Louisville Times previewed the matchup under the headline, "WAR" in Pearl Harbor-sized font with a picture of Hall and Crum underneath. Other media outlets dubbed the matchup the "Dream Game." Scalpers sold tickets to the game for as much as $500 each and Louisville residents bought advertisements in local newspapers offering to trade Kentucky Derby tickets for a seat.
If Kentucky administrators had any concern that the game could spark renewed outcry for a longterm series against Louisville, that certainly wasn't on the minds of any of the Wildcats players before tipoff. Guard Dicky Beal said he looked at the game against Louisville as a "great thing" because Kentucky finally got to test itself against an in-state foe who happened to be "one of the best programs in the country."
"You want that type of competition," Beal said. "You have two great programs and two great traditions. To me, I never understood why the game was never played before that. I'm glad that we were part of something that was so historic and I'm glad it's one of the great rivalries in college basketball today."
The reason the game had such a lasting impact was because it featured a panorama of brave shots, stirring rallies and unmatched pageantry.
Kentucky governor John Y. Brown arrived at the game clad in a two-toned blazer that was red on one side and blue on the other. Cheerleaders from both sides linked arms before tipoff and sang "My Old Kentucky Home." And the standing-room-only crowd stood and roared throughout a game that featured numerous plot twists.
Kentucky forced overtime when Jim Master got free and sank a 12-footer as time expired in regulation, but Louisville ratcheted up the intensity of its full-court press, scored the opening 14 points in the extra session and escaped with the victory.
It's possible Kentucky still might not have agreed to a series after that had Brown not realized the potential showcase the game could become and gotten involved immediately afterward. The governor, a former owner of the ABA's Kentucky Colonels and a friend of Crum's and Olsen's, pressured the presidents and trustees at Kentucky and Louisville to make an agreement amenable to both sides.
"I still don't think they would have played us in the regular season if John Y hadn't stepped in," Crum said. .
Added Olsen: "I'm sure the game was forced on Kentucky's athletic department. That decision to play wasn't something that came from the ground up. It came from the top down."
It would be difficult for anyone to argue that the resulting series between Kentucky and Louisville has been detrimental to either side. The Wildcats lead the modern series 17-11, but both programs remain two of the most successful, prestigious and profitable in the nation.
Saturday's matchup promises to be one of the better Kentucky-Louisville showdowns in recent memory. They both enter the game with 12-1 records, top-five rankings and Final Four aspirations.
"I'm pleased it has become a great rivalry," Olsen said. "The friendships and the competition hasn't been something that has been a deterrent in any way for either school. It brings focus to the importance of basketball in the state of Kentucky. A rivalry like this, there's probably nothing like it anywhere in America."
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