No middle ground for Kentucky rivals

March 29, 2012

This is the geographic middle ground between Lexington and Louisville, not that there has been much of that in the figurative sense here this week.

“A lot of people who are nice to each other 12 months out of the year aren’t being so nice right now,” said Tyler Long, a vice president of the Commonwealth Bank, situated down the street from a row of antique stores. “I saw a good friend of mine who is a Louisville fan at the coffee shop and I didn’t have a lot to say to him. I’ll talk to him after the game.”

Saturday’s Final Four contest between the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville — or the Big Blue Nation vs. Little Brother, as some have come to call it on local sports-talk radio — has consumed the Bluegrass State, including this town of 14,000 that sits halfway between the 70-mile stretch of Interstate 64 that separates the two schools. The frenzy started just as Kentucky advanced to its second consecutive Final Four with a victory over Baylor on Sunday to set up the first matchup this late in the tournament between the two colleges.

“Within moments of the end of the game, I had an email from one of our exhibitors asking if we were canceling the Showcase,” said Shelley Goodwin, executive director of the Shelby County Chamber of Commerce and organizer of the Showcase City Feature at the local high school for small businesses looking to attract new customers. “I said, ‘No, you will be home long before tipoff.’ (The Showcase) ends at 3 p.m., so there is plenty of time for people to get to their parties.”


Asked to give his breakdown of what will transpire after the 6:09 p.m. ET tipoff, barber Kenny Mickey went outside the Xs and Os.

“The DUI rate is going to rival New Year’s Eve,” Mickey said with a smile. “The petty fights are going to break out, and I see a 10 or 20 percent increase in arrests.”

Mickey might have been joking, but public safety in the aftermath of Saturday’s game is a concern — especially in the area around the UK campus in Lexington. Fourteen city and University of Kentucky officials stood at the dais for a news conference at Commonwealth Stadium on Wednesday to run down how they will handle the masses, which got particularly unruly when the Wildcats won the national title in 1996 (and to a lesser extent in the wake of the 1998 championship).

Combining the 14-year title drought with the heightened tension that comes with playing their most hated rival — especially one led by a former UK coach, Rick Pitino — might not make the jobs of firefighters and police officers any easier.

“It’s like I told our staff here at the university when the brackets came out: This is the perfect storm,” UK police chief Joe Monroe told “We are going to either face Duke or Louisville in one of these final few games — and playing Louisville is going to pose a lot more problems than if we were to play another school.”

Neither Monroe nor Lexington police chief Ronnie Bastin detailed exactly how many officers will be on patrol near campus or if they’d be in riot gear, something the police have employed to quell previous out-of-control celebrations.

The corner of Euclid and Woodland avenues — a block east of the UK campus — has been the epicenter of the celebrations.

“If (Kentucky) wins the game, I can see Euclid filling up again,” said Tim Welch, a bartender for the past 20 years at Lynagh's Irish Pub, located at the intersection. “This place kind of became where everyone wanted to go. They filled out this intersection in all four directions. I don’t know how police can stop that. What they probably do is make sure nobody sets anything on fire.”

Marvin Welch, no relation to Tim, is a frequent Lynagh's patron and a rarity in these parts: He’s a Louisville fan. He still plans to wear some Cardinals apparel to the bar Saturday.

“I know what I’m up against,” Welch said. “I have a plan. If Louisville is up with 30 seconds left, I’m going out the back door.”

Avoiding confrontation has been an issue already this week, even in a dialysis clinic outside Lexington. Charles Taylor, a Louisville fan, entered the clinic Monday while talking with somebody about the upcoming Final Four game, according to the police report. Ed Wilson, a UK fan who was receiving dialysis treatment, told Taylor to “shush,” and after the two exchanged a few more words (and after Wilson offered up a one-fingered gesture), Taylor hit Wilson in the face.

Wilson said he didn’t want to press charges, and no arrests were made.

“It’s not uncommon to respond to a party where something like this happens,” said Lt. Robert Swanigan of the Georgetown Police Department. “This is a first at a dialysis clinic. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were (more similar incidents elsewhere this week).”

The angst doesn’t seem to be so high in Louisville. Gauging by some of the callers into talk radio, Cardinals fans fall somewhere between the “happy to be here” and “playing with house money” spectrum. It’s understandable since it wasn’t until Louisville’s unexpected run through the Big East tourney that a third national title was even considered a remote possibility.

“We are culturally different,” Pitino told reporters at a news conference on Tuesday. “We are 23 percent minority. We are more of an urban school. They have a different environment, so to speak. We are more limited to our city. They have as many fans in our city.”

Pitino added the mixture of the two fan bases — especially when it comes to matrimony — can be an issue.

“It ends up with a lot of mixed marriages that end up bad,” he joked. “You have a Louisville woman and a Kentucky man. It’s always ends bad. We have been trying to do something about it, and it doesn’t work.”

Ask a Louisville fan about a Kentucky fan and this typically follows:

“UK fans are a little bit snobbier,” said Preston Floyd, a supervisor at Bluegrass Brewing Co. across from Louisville’s home arena, the Yum! Center. “Louisville fans have a lot more heart.”

“Entitled” was the word tossed around Wednesday by employees of the Cardinals athletics souvenir shop attached to the arena.

Lachlan McLean, who hosts a nightly sports talk show on WHAS-AM, has heard his share of swagger from the Louisville faithful — including one caller Tuesday who predicted an 80-45 Cardinals victory.

“They have been more confident than I thought they’d be,” McLean said. “I thought they would have more of a sense of fear in this scenario, but there have been some who are running their mouths.”

The typical retort to Louisville fans includes brandishing the fact UK has seven national titles and the Wildcats won the teams' other matchup this season, a 69-62 decision on New Year’s Eve. (The two teams have only faced each other during the regular season for the past 29 years.) Oh, and then there’s Pitino’s marital infidelity in 2003 that was exposed in an extortion case — something that many UK fans act as if it occurred last week.

“When it’s bad, they’re low key,” said Tommy Hayes, owner of the Main Street Barber Shop in Shelbyville who had on a blue UK polo shirt. “They get on a little run like they are on right now, all the pompoms come out.”

A couple of UK fans at a Lexington bar where goldfish races were about to commence behind them agreed on their dislike of Louisville but had divergent opinions on whether Saturday’s game was more important than Monday’s NCAA championship game.

“I think Monday,” said Logan Bailey, who is taking a break from UK this semester.

“Saturday. It’s the rivalry,” Nick Ellis, a senior at UK, responded.

Back in Shelbyville, Mickey leaned back in a barber chair on his break and predicted the Commonwealth of Kentucky — which overall sways heavily in the Wildcats’ favor — could be a sullen place come Saturday night.

“I think if Louisville wins the game, you’re going to need surveillance on every overpass and every bridge,” Mickey said. “UK fans will jump. I think that’s how it’s going to be.”