Waiting for my connection to Gainesville here in the Atlanta airport, watching a charming group of people gathered around one of the self-compacting trash cans amusing themselves by putting items in one at a time until the compacter kicks in. So what better to do that catch up on some blogging? Thoughts . . .
COLUMN FEEDBACK TODAY: Interestingly, the main question I’m getting over today’s column is “Are you a UK fan or a U of L fan?” It’s a frequent question. The first answer is an easy one — I’m not really a fan. I don’t lose sleep when the teams lose. I don’t feel any brighter when they win. But that’s too simplistic, so I will go on.
I grew up in rural Shelby County from the fourth grade on. So I experienced first-hand what UK basketball meant to people in this state outside the Watterson Expressway, and to a little more than a third of basketball fans inside the Watterson, if surveys are to be trusted. It is a cultural and historical phenomenon. I grew up rooting for the Wildcats, like 90 percent of the kids I grew up with, though before that I lived and went to school in Louisville, and the first player I ever remember pretending to be while shooting basketball was not a Wildcat, but Louisville’s Wesley Cox.
I then went to school at U of L. I was still, probably, a UK fan my freshman year at U of L. But from my sophomore year on, as I got to know people at U of L, worked in just about every office on campus, represented the school thorough its orientation and other programs, I began to root for U of L’s teams. I didn’t begin to dislike UK. I just had no connection to the school.
When I left town to work in Indiana, I followed both teams. When I came back to become the U fo L beat writer at The C-J, a job I held for six years, I considered it the best job at the paper. I couldn’t have been treated better by the folks in athletics and the administration there. My relationships with friends on the academic side of the scho0l only enhanced my appreciation for the place.
When I took over as columnist, one of my most important goals right away was to begin to build similar relationships at UK, as best I could. It was tough. I work for a paper in a different city, and I don’t have the long relationship there that I do with folks at U of L. People like Mitch Barnhart, former UK sports information director Scott Stricklin, the legendary Bill Keightley, football media relations director Tony Neely and everybody in sports information there, along with many others who I’m leaving out, right up to the current SID staff, have been great to me.
So, I guess to sum this up, I’m a product of both places. I’m a product of the culture of this state, and its long history with UK. And I’m a product of U of L and its people.
I suppose I’m going to this length because people are curious as to where I’m coming from. If I have a bias, it’s probably that the teams from this state do well. It’s not that I “root” for them per se, but those things make for compelling stories. I consider it a great thing to be able to sit courtside for games at Freedom Hall and Rupp Arena. Maybe someone from out of town would look at that viewpoint and call it “homerish” or “provincial.” I don’t think that. I can appreciate good stories and teams wherever they come from. I really hurt for the Memphis kids last year while covering the national championship game, after spending a good bit of time with them during Final Four week. But I daresay that I consider it more of a big deal to cover games at Freedom Hall or Rupp than most people who did not grow up where those two places were the centers of college basketball. Most, but not all, by the way. And I could be wrong.
On a regular basis, fans from each side accuse me of being biased for the other. Today, a U of L fan wrote that I “never write anything positive” about the Cardinals, and that acknowledging my history with UK proves my bias. He must not have read my feature on Angel McCoughtry that ran on the front page of the paper this past Sunday, or my column about Terrence Williams on Monday. I have a regular UK caller who chides me when I write too many U of L columns in a row, always noting, “You’re not the U of L beat writer anymore.” The last time he called, last month, I’d written three columns in a row about U of L. Of course, 7 of my previous 9 before that had been about UK.
I think all of it is great. It’s that passion that keeps sportswriters in business. May it long continue to do so.
I’ve written more positive than negative about both, but in this job, even when you have great respect for the people calling the shots, you have to call them as you see them. Hence I know I’ve written things that have rubbed athletic administrators at both schools the wrong way. And more than anything, fans of each school get mad when you’re not more negative about the other.
It goes this far. I have two sons (and a daughter). Jack is 7. Henry is almost 5. Jack is a U of L fan. Henry is a UK fan. When I took the columnist job and had my family drop me off at a UK football game, Jack said, “Hurry up and get me out of here. I don’t like all this blue.”
This morning, for school spirit day, I tried to put a school T-shirt on Henry while getting him dressed. “No!” he said. “Why not?” I asked.
“Daddy,” he said. “It’s red.”
He won’t wear red, or sit in a red chair. His brother is the same with blue.
I don’t know where it comes from. I’ve raised both the same. My U of L friends say, “You obviously became lax in your parenting as you got older.” My UK friends say, “You obviously became a better parent as you gained experience.”
Here’s the important point. I love both the same.
GILLISPIE AND HISTORY: When asked recently about becoming the first UK team to lose six times in a season in Rupp Arena, UK coach Billy Gillispie said that he wasn’t much into history. I think it’s not fair to read too much into that quote. I’ve talked to Gillispie enough and heard him enough to know that the tradition and history at UK mean a great deal to him. But in the heat of a season, especially in the heat of a difficult season, the historical data he was presented with at the time doesn’t have much bearing on the next game, or the rest of this season. I think he was trying to say that he wasn’t worried much about history right now. And while I don’t know if he’s been as demonstrative in his appreciation of the program’s history as some fans, boosters or former players would like him to be, nor has he turned his back on it either.
KEIGHTLEY’S INFLUENCE: Several UK fans have pointed this out, and I was remiss in not considering it myself. Keightley was a tremendous calming influence on UK players for 40 years. He’s where they went for perspective, for a smiling face and a pat on the back. When playing for a coach as demanding as Gillispie, that probably became even more important. I think this group of UK players, for more reasons than that, miss Keightley, and could have used him as much as ever this season. It’s not the key for all that has happened, or even an excuse. But I think the absence of Mr. Wildcat has had its affect on this team.