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Red + Blue = Rivalry: CHD interviews the director of a Kentucky-Louisville documentary

“The Rivalry: Red v. Blue” is a documentary about the rivalry between Kentucky and Louisville, which is one of the greatest in college basketball. Located 75 miles apart from each other in Lexington and Louisville respectively, the teams have combined to win 11 NCAA titles including two of the past three.  The film includes interviews with such legendary figures as Denny Crum, Joe B. Hall, Russ Smith, and Scott Padgett.  CHD’s Jon Teitel got to chat with director Rory Owen Delaney about his favorite players, how fans think about Rick Pitino, and his prediction for the big game this weekend.

 

Why did you decide to make this film? I got the idea to make “Red V. Blue” on New Year’s Eve in 2010, which happened to be the day of the UK-UofL men’s basketball game. That year’s game was played in Louisville at the Yum! Center, but at the time I was visiting my family in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. However, my isolation in the Rocky Mountains did not prevent my participation in the exchange of some annual good-natured rivalry banter with my fellow Kentuckians: quite the contrary!

Before the game I fired off a series of cocksure text messages to my Big Blue Nation friends, talking about how the Cardinals were going to finally best the Wildcats and Rick Pitino was going to get his first win for UofL over UK since his nemesis John Calipari took the reins in Lexington (disclaimer: I am a life-long Louisville fan.). When that prediction did not pan out and the Cats stomped the Cards at home 78-63, my phone started blowing up with text messages from all of my UK-supporter friends, who were reveling in yet another victory. After about 15 minutes of some intense fan abuse and sulking over the depressing loss, the hilarity of the situation finally dawned on me. At that moment I knew that I was not the only Cardinals fan who was getting bombarded by their Big Blue friends: there were literally thousands of others enduring the same trash talk all across Kentucky as well as across the U.S. This is a regular thing, a phenomenon that repeats itself every year regardless of which school triumphs. With the Kentucky-Louisville game one thing is always guaranteed: the winners will gloat over the losers…with gusto. After my epiphany I called up producer Wade Smith (a Wildcats guy) and said, “Hey, let’s make a UK-UofL rivalry documentary.” The rest is history.

Who is your all-time favorite Kentucky coach/player, and why? My favorite UK coach is Pitino: partially because he was such a great coach who saved the Wildcats from the abyss after their NCAA transgressions with minimal talent, but ultimately because he went over to the dark side to coach for my Cardinals! My favorite UK player is Rex Chapman. “King Rex” could drain threes like nobody’s business and was a legend when I was growing up, but Anthony Davis is a close second. “The Brow” is by far the best nickname and player I have seen in at least a decade.

Who is your all-time favorite Louisville coach and player, and why? My favorite UofL coach is Denny Crum because of his loyalty. Denny put Louisville on the college basketball map when he could have easily bailed on the Cardinals and taken the UCLA job after Coach John Wooden retired in 1975. Denny had played for UCLA and served as Wooden’s assistant coach for years: he was the heir-apparent for the UCLA program. However, Denny did not take the job: he stayed at Louisville and turned what was a less-than-glamorous program at the time into a top-tier college basketball destination. My favorite UofL player is Luke Hancock. I am a sucker for a good underdog story, and when Luke led Louisville to the NCAA championship in 2013 and became the first bench player in history to be named the Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA tourney, that pretty much sealed the deal: LUUUUUUKE!!!

What makes this rivalry different from other great matchups around the nation? What makes the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry unique is that it is a non-conference, in-state rivalry game. UK and UofL have never been in the same conference so they only get one shot at each other every year unless they happen to meet up in the NCAA tournament. Duke-North Carolina, Ohio State-Michigan, Florida-Kentucky: all of those schools get two chances to beat their rival. Kentucky and Louisville do not have that luxury: they have to get it right the first time or the losing fans will be hearing it all year long, regardless of whether their team winds up winning it all in March. For example, Scott Padgett told us that after winning the national championship in 1998 with UK but losing the rivalry game to UofL, he came home to see Louisville fans mocking Kentucky fans with t-shirts reading “#1 in the country, #2 in the state”! So it is not hyperbole to say that to some fans this annual rivalry game is even more important than a national championship.

Why is basketball so important to the commonwealth of Kentucky, and where does it rank relative to bourbon and horses?! Kentucky has always been a poor state in terms of economics and education and has not had a lot to brag about. Basketball is something that Kentuckians can be proud of because it is something that the state has excelled in for generations ever since Coach Adolph Rupp landed at the University of Kentucky and created 1 of the greatest basketball traditions in the country. It is an identity that is as much a part of the fabric of the state as horses or bourbon. In fact, given the declining interest in horse racing and the new-found success of the UK and UofL basketball programs, I would rank basketball ahead of thoroughbreds in terms of importance to the Commonwealth. As far as where basketball ranks alongside bourbon, I would call it a deadlock since (like basketball) bourbon seems to be experiencing a renaissance of its own in restaurants and bars around the world.

What role has culture and race played in the rivalry? Each has played a major role in the rivalry. The cultural differences begin with the location of the two schools: Louisville is the urban center of Kentucky, while Lexington is a sleepy country town. Like most big cities Louisville is politically liberal, and like most country towns Lexington is conservative. It is also interesting to note that about 80% of Kentucky’s African-American population resides in Louisville. Before the two schools began playing each other annually in 1983, this racial divide was cited as one of the reasons why Kentucky refused to schedule Louisville in men’s basketball. In the 1970s and 1980s Louisville was seen as the team that blacks cheered for while Kentucky was seen as the team that whites cheered for. Race plays less of a role in the rivalry today than in previous decades, but the differences in culture between Louisville and Kentucky fans remain significant.

Most modern fans who do not have a ticket are used to watching games on TV: what made radio broadcaster Cawood Ledford such a beloved figure? Ledford was such a beloved figure in Kentucky because he was a broadcaster for WHAS 11, the biggest radio station in the state back in his day. At the time college basketball was not televised, so it was Cawood’s voice that brought Kentucky games into homes around the state from the hollers in eastern Kentucky to the barbershops in downtown Louisville. From 1953-1992 Ledford was on the air for some of the Wildcats’ highest and lowest moments, including Rupp’s fourth NCAA championship and Joe Hall’s first championship. The final game that Ledford called was the infamous Duke-Kentucky game that ended with Christian Laettner’s epic game-winning jumper.

Why did Coach Rupp not want to play the Cardinals, and how did Coach Crum change all that? Rupp did not want to schedule Louisville because he did not want to face any in-state schools, including Western Kentucky, Murray State or Morehead. At the time Kentucky boasted one of the strongest basketball programs in the country and regularly played at Madison Square Garden. Louisville was seen as a small city school that was not on the Wildcats’ level. When Crum took over the Louisville program in the 1970s and started building great teams that played in Final Fours and won national championships, that success threatened Kentucky (who was coached by Joe B. Hall at the time). Coach Hall maintained the policy after starting his tenure with the Wildcats, but Denny refused to play second-fiddle. Crum wanted to play the best competition to challenge and develop his players, so he recruited the media to help him out. When more and more reporters started writing about the rivalry and asking why the game was not being played, CBS caught wind of the hype and set in motion a series of events that culminated with Louisville playing Kentucky in the Elite 8 in the 1983 NCAA tourney. Kentucky still resisted scheduling the Cardinals even after Louisville won the 1983 “Dream Game” in OT, but when Governor John Y. Brown threw his weight into the ring at Kentucky (his alma mater), presto: the Louisville-Kentucky game suddenly became an annual fixture.

Where does Terry Howard’s missed FT in the 1975 NCAA tourney rank among the most agonizing moments in Louisville history? In my opinion it still ranks as Louisville’s most agonizing moment. Terry was a 90% free throw shooter who was the regular closer for his team: he was the guy you wanted at the line at the end of a game with a title game appearance on the line. However, Terry is human like the rest of us, and he rimmed out the front end of a 1-and-1. Had he made those 2 free throws, it would have sealed the game and set up a Kentucky-Louisville Dream Game to decide the 1975 NCAA title…but it was not meant to be. Last year’s loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 was another agonizing moment for Cardinals fans. Louisville dominated for the majority of the game but shot a pathetic 13-23 from the charity stripe (Kentucky made 22-27 FTs). In the final minutes of the game Louisville’s misses caught up with them, and the Wildcats snuck out with a 5-point win after Aaron Harrison made a couple of huge shots.

How do Kentucky fans feel about former coach Rick Pitino, and what impact have he and John Calipari had on the rivalry? Kentucky fans are split on Pitino. A lot of them consider him a turncoat for going to Louisville after his NBA career ended abruptly in Boston, but a lot of UK fans still love Rick because he brought the Wildcats back to prominence in the 1990s after the NCAA dealt the program some serious penalties. Calipari and Pitino have brought new life to the rivalry. They rank among the best coaches in the business, and the fact that they share a personal rivalry off the court further elevates the hostilities between the two programs and fan bases. If Calipari and Pitino were not at rival in-state programs pushing each other to the limit, I do not believe that back-to-back championships for UK and UofL in 2012 and 2013 respectively would have been possible.

What is it like to be a Kentucky fan while living in Louisville? Louisville is ground zero for the rivalry. Although there is obviously a large UofL fan base within Jefferson County, there is also a strong UK contingent in the city. In fact, Louisville is home to more Kentucky graduates than any other place in the world, so being a Kentucky fan in Louisville is not as difficult as you might think. As for being a Louisville fan in Lexington, that is a whole other story!

Which team is going to win on Saturday? As a Louisville fan I have got to go with the Cardinals at home. I know that UK is stacked beyond belief but Louisville has some veterans and a decent inside presence, so I am predicting that the Cardinals will win 73-72 on a last-second 3-point shot.

How can college basketball fans check out your film? They can buy the film on amazon.com or redvbluefilm.com. They can also look for “The Rivalry: Red V. Blue” on ESPN Classic beginning in February as well as on iTunes, Youtube and other digital platforms, and check out the trailer at: http://youtu.be/buHQDslnxec

JonTeitel

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