Kentucky’s Savior ReturnsWildcats fans lose no matter what
When Kentucky and Louisville meet in the Final Four, there will be a lot more at stake than a trip to the national championship game. The schools are local rivals, with campuses just 64 miles apart. They meet every year in a non-conference game, but have never met in the Final Four.
But more than that, much more than that, former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino will lead Louisville into the battle. For Kentucky fans, that is the ultimate nightmare.
The story began in 1989.
The University of Kentucky and its fan base had been rocked by a recruiting scandal brought on by former coach Eddie Sutton. For two years, there would be no postseason at all for the Wildcats, and they would only be allowed to give three athletic scholarships per season. Basically, the program was set to feel the consequences of the scandal for the better half of a decade. The future looked grim.
Enter Rick Pitino, a New York native with a Sicilian name who had already taken one team to the Final Four a few years earlier before jetting to the NBA to coach the New York Knicks. He didn’t look Kentucky, he didn’t talk Kentucky, but he was Kentucky’s only hope.
And by 1993, just four years after the NCAA sanctions, Pitino made the Wildcats relevant again. Somehow, he had them back in the Final Four. Three years after that, he coached them all the way to the national title. The year after that, they were back in the title game again, losing a heartbreaker in overtime to Arizona.
And then, just as Big Blue Nation believed they had found their savior, the man who would lead them as a lifelong appointment, the big money of the NBA came calling. Pitino jumped ship, becoming the head coach of the Boston Celtics, and left Wildcats fans all across the commonwealth feeling as though their spouse had just run out on them without so much as leaving behind a post-it note.
Why, Rick, why? For months, there was a hangover embracing the Bluegrass State. Nobody understood why a man so beloved, a man who could have run for governor and won in a landslide if he wanted to, would leave. Was it for money? That wasn’t good enough. Kentucky fans wanted answers, but they never got them.
But then Tubby Smith was hired, and he lead the Wildcats to their seventh national title in 1998. Kentucky was one overtime game away (the 1997 heartbreaker to Arizona) from winning three straight championships. To put hat in perspective, there are only seven programs in history that have ever won three titles in total, let alone in consecutive seasons.
When Smith came in and won the title, emotions were temporarily settled. But now, over a decade later, the Wildcats are still searching for their next national title. As the tournament losses piled up, questions of what could have been began to plague Kentucky fans.
What would have happened if Pitino had stayed? Could Kentucky have become a perennial champion, like John Wooden’s UCLA teams in the sixties and seventies? Could they have become the college game’s undisputed program of the century?
But the heartache wasn’t over yet. How the basketball gods could instill so much pain on a loving fan base is hard to imagine, but that’s what they did.
In 2001, as talk of Pitino’s potential return to Kentucky grew, the worst thing that any Kentucky fan could ever imagine happened.
Pitino took the head coaching job at the University of Louisville.
The man who had seemingly been born for the very purpose of vitalizing Big Blue hoops was now going to be coaching against the Wildcats, wearing Louisville red instead of Kentucky blue. The nightmare had come full circle.
When Saturday’s game is over, and the dust has settled, Kentucky fans will be in pain no matter what. If they lose, Pitino will have given them the ultimate burn. Instead of leading them to title games, he would be keeping them out of them.
If the Wildcats win, there will be plenty of Miller Lite flowing, and the excitement will gear up around Monday’s national title game, but something much deeper will be going on too. If they win, Kentucky fans will still be unable to shake off that lingering question. What if Pitino stayed? How great could we have become?
And in the very back of their minds will be the thought that is central in all great love stories—is there any chance that one day our beloved Rick will return home and be with us again?