The annual football clash between UK and UL is more than just your typical rivalry game. It not only gives the winning school undisputed bragging rights for the rest of the year, but it also allows either Lexington or Louisville to claim urban supremacy over the other. The two cities are separated by a mere 77 miles along the I-64 corridor, but when it comes to cheering on their respective teams, their fans might as well be worlds apart. Out-of-staters are completely clueless to our differences—they wouldn’t know the distinction between The Galt House or the Campbell House, the Yum Center or the Hope Center, Freedom Hall or Joe B. Hall. But all Kentuckians are fully aware that when choosing between the Cats or the Cards, you best know exactly where you stand and make absolutely sure that you never cross over to the other side.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a life-long Wildcat fan. I grew up in Lexington and spent 11 years attending UK—the last 3 years in a graduate program after my application for admission into a comparable program at UL was inexplicably denied. So you see, I still hold a big grudge against the University of Louisville Cardinals. It’s a bit petty after a quarter of a century but it still remains very personal to me. I want to beat the dirty birds senseless in every endeavor no matter the occasion.
This is only my second foray into Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The last time I was here was on opening day in 1998 as the Cats unmercifully pummeled the Cards 68-34. Tim Couch threw for nearly 500 yards and seven touchdowns as UK fans went berserk celebrating in enemy territory. As magnificent as that performance was, the thing I remember most about that day was the relentless heat. It’s the hottest I’ve ever been in my life as the plastic from the freshly lacquered red stadium seat bleached into my sweat soaked jorts (yes, even then I was ahead of the fashion curve).
The game time temperature for this regular season finale was about 50 degrees cooler as we made our way into downtown Louisville. It’s a bit of a challenge negotiating the streets of the dilapidated urban neighborhoods enveloping the stadium—a world away from the bucolic pastures surrounding Commonwealth Stadium that we too often take for granted. Tailgating was virtually nonexistent at this early hour in advance of the noon kickoff. I find my way to my perch in the press box, with panoramic views out toward the state fairgrounds and the roller coasters of Kentucky Kingdom. I’m cozy and warm, anticipating a shocking Wildcat upset over the evil Cards.
After UL’s quarterback Lamar Jackson directed the Cards on a 5 play 84-yard scoring drive right down UK’s throat to open the game, few gave the Cats much of a chance. When you consider what the Heisman Trophy frontrunner did the rest of the afternoon—dashing, thrashing, and gashing the Kentucky defense for 281 yards through the air, 171 yards on the ground, and 4 touchdowns, it’s a wonder the Wildcats were even in the game. What you may have failed to consider was that Stephen Johnson matched him pass for pass (338 yards through the air and 3 touchdowns) and stride for stride (83 rushing yards) as Kentucky prevailed 41-38 on an Austin MacGinnis 47-yard field goal with 12 seconds left in a rootin’ tootin’ shootout of a contest. The Kentucky offense, led by two Stephen Johnson to Garrett Johnson touchdown bombs overcame some familiar penalties and dropped passes to pull off the glorious upset. With the victory, the Wildcats capture the Governor’s Cup for the first time in six years and they now lead the overall series against the Cardinals 15-14. Woohoo!
I know it’s unhealthy to harbor such decades-long resentment, so I’m going to be a gracious winner and bury the hatchet by giving “Little Brother” his due. Louisville has a good football team (but they’d be just another also ran in a real conference like the SEC). I’ve never spoken to Coach Bobby Petrino (and know nothing first-hand about his slimy indiscretions) –but by all accounts, the guy can coach. Louisville fans, (although preoccupied with insecurities and a Big Blue inferiority complex), are quite passionate about their team. Throughout the afternoon, the 55,000-seat pizza palace was rocking and rolling (cheering for the team that just last week choked away their golden chance to make the College Football playoffs). For this particular 60-minute scuffle, Kentucky was a tad better and deserved to win (despite some questionable officiating and overcoming a 29 point Vegas spread). In the end, Cat fans came to Louisville feasting on cardinal and Card fans left the stadium eating crow. The demons have been exorcised. I feel liberated. Permit me to say “I told you so.” The Wildcats are going bowling for the first time in six years and I’m proud as heck to be there to cover it all.
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Football Column for Nolan Group Media publications.