Fanning the flames of Kentucky rivalry

March 29, 2012

I am a 10-year-old couch. The people who bought me gave me to their son when he left for college in Kentucky. On Saturday night, after the conclusion of the Kentucky-Louisville basketball game at the Final Four in New Orleans, there is a good chance I will be dragged out of the living room, onto the lawn and set on fire, just like many of my kind were burned last weekend in Louisville after the Cardinals’ comeback win against Florida and in Lexington after UK’s breezy stomp-down of Baylor.

Why is Kentucky suddenly so emotional about basketball that burning couches in the street has become a near-commonplace expression of victory?

That’s a complicated question, but the short answer is that it’s all Rick Pitino’s fault. In the Commonwealth of Kentucky it is simple — you love him or hate him. There is no gray area.

But, given that he has made stops at both schools, he elicits emotions statewide. So, yeah, maybe he is the reason burning couches has, uh, caught fire in Kentucky.


The tradition appears to have started in West Virginia, in the 1970s when both Dumpsters and couches were set ablaze after big victories. Local authorities and student pyromaniacs in Morgantown have battled ever since.

And while one would think the state of Kentucky would be filled with trash talking this week, it has been relatively quiet — give or take one fight in a kidney dialysis center.

But that will all change on Saturday, especially when Pitino’s mug shows up on the TV screen.

In the early 1990s, the once-mighty Kentucky was reeling from NCAA sanctions resulting in then-coach Eddie Sutton getting caught with some nasty recruiting violations. The program was on life support, and then, from New York, came flashy Rick Pitino in his Armani suits with star recruit Jamal Mashburn. They led Kentucky to the 1992 East Regional final, only to lose to that Christian Laettner shot.

By 1996, Pitino had revived Kentucky to dominance fostered by a full-court press and crazy 3-point shooting. Kentucky won the NCAA tournament that year and came one game short of the repeat in 1997, falling to Arizona in the final game. Pitino then decided to take his talents to Boston as head coach of the Celtics with an ownership stake in the team — a superstar deal that went nowhere, proving for the second time that Pitino was not fit for coaching at the professional level.

Meanwhile, the Kentucky team he left behind won the 1998 NCAA tournament without him under coach Tubby Smith, a former Pitino assistant.

Then in 2001, as Kentucky began its slide into mediocrity following its 1998 banner, the school’s seventh, Pitino made his most audacious career move yet by accepting the job as head coach of Louisville, Kentucky’s passionate rival. Imagine Joe Torre in the Boston Red Sox dugout, and you get the idea.

Kentucky responded in 2007 with the Billy Gillispie Experiment: two disastrous years that culminated in elimination from the 2009 NIT by Notre Dame.

Gillispie was fired after that embarrassment, and hired to fill his place? Memphis head coach John Calipari, a remarkable recruiter who always seemed to perform above his program’s resources, even though his record was tainted by two vacated Final Fours.

Today, Calipari does not worry about punching above his weight or doing more with less. At Kentucky, he’s like a go-cart racer given his first Lamborghini: a program with the facilities and fans to support the A-list recruiting that fuels his dribble-drive offense.

In his two previous years at Kentucky, Calipari has taken his Wildcats to an Elite Eight and a Final Four, and a 3-0 record against Pitino and Louisville.

Pitino, meanwhile, has been mired in scandal of his own, following revelations that he had sex with a woman (who was married to the team’s equipment manager) in a restaurant, and then had his assistant coach drive the woman to Cincinnati for an abortion.

On Saturday, these coaches face each other.

After all, Louisville has already won. In a down season where the Cards posted a 31-point loss to Providence, Louisville’s goose seemed cooked. By crushing the Big East tournament and knocking off their NCAA bracket’s No. 1 seed before coming from behind against Florida, Pitino and Louisville have had their season vindicated.

Meanwhile, anything short of a national championship for Kentucky will be considered to be a failure for Calipari; it’s the sort of pressure that could cause a head coach to run prematurely into the NBA.

Yet no matter how calm Kentucky remains during the week, by Saturday the unchecked passions of untold thousands will flood the streets of Louisville, Lexington and New Orleans; threaten the nation’s bourbon supply; scream themselves into an outbreak of laryngitis; and threaten the well-being of any hand-me-down upholstery within 10 blocks of any college campus in the commonwealth.

Many such couches might drag themselves onto the lawn and self-immolate tomorrow, just to get it over with — because by Saturday night, there’s no telling what might happen.