I’m writing to you with a question. I’m an incredibly avid sports fan. I follow UK and despise UofL.
Throughout my constant trolling of message boards, I have found that both UofL and UK fans think you are “against them.” I just saw a UofL fan this morning claim that he cancelled his C-J subscription because he was tired of reading your articles. However, I’ve also seen many UK fans claim that you never/seldomly write a bad word about UofL, yet “pick on UK.” How does that work? How can both fan-bases simultaneously think you are a blatant “homer” for the other. The same seems to be true for Bozich. I admit that I am not a fan of Bozich, yet UofL fans often refer to him as “Bozo.” They think he hates UofL, I see it completely different.
Do you have any insight?
Do I ever. Warning, this is a long response. But it’s a complicated issue. Here goes:
You’re absolutely correct. I’m always amazed that I can, within a span of 24 hours, be accused of being a “U of L homer” or a “Big Blue” something-or-other.
It was a revelation to me when I took over the column. I tried to be open about my background regarding these schools. I am from Louisville and, for the most part, grew up here until the third grade. The first basketball player I can remember pretending to be was U of L’s Wesley Cox. But we moved to Bagdad, Ky., when I was in the fourth grade, and I pretty much latched onto UK from that point. I was a UK fan, primarily, through the rest of my junior high and high school days, though I don’t really think I had much animosity toward Louisville. I followed both very closely.
I don’t know if people remember this, but back in the days before the two teams played there was this little board game you could get, with dice that had Wildcats and Cardinals on them, and player cards. I don’t remember how the game worked, but I wore the thing out playing it. I had a little basketball scorebook and I’d keep the stats at home either off the radio or television. My dad grew up a UK fan. He remembered listening to some of Rupp’s great teams on a radio at his grandmother’s.
I kept scrapbooks of the teams, cut out their clippings. The other day in the basement I ran across one of those scrapbooks, with a story about Dicky Beal — one of my favorite players — in it, along with some U of L clippings, a couple of columns by Billy Reed, and a clipping from The Courier-Journal of Tom Seaver’s first game as a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds.
We lived well outside of Louisville and Lexington, so I didn’t go to many games. I do remember once, somehow, my dad got tickets to a UK game and we went to Rupp Arena and sat in about the fourth row on Senior Day in Rupp for a visit from UNLV in 1978. It was UK’s last home game, I think, before winning the national title.
I went to high school at Shelby County, where in the gym were hung two larger-than-life portraits. Both were UK players — Former Rockets Mike Casey and Charles Hurt.
But Shelby County was pretty well mixed in terms of UK and U of L fans, and there in the early 80s was the height of debate between the two. When U of L won the Dream Game, it really ratcheted things up. My mom always followed U of L, and when the Cardinals went to Reunion Arena in Dallas to play for the championship in 1986, she was there.
I wrote, in my first column, about my bus rides from Bagdad to the schools in Shelbyville, arguing with the bus driver Dude Payton — a huge Denny Crum and U of L fan — and the boy I sat by every morning, Jeff Miller. We just loved stirring each other up. But in most of those years, Dude had the upper hand.
Meanwhile, when it came time to go to college, I had a few options, but the only school to offer me a full scholarship was U of L, something for which I remain grateful. In my years as a student there, I worked in different offices all over campus. I was a resident assistant in the dorms. I worked freshmen orientation for three years, introducing students to the campus. I worked in the financial aid and admissions offices. I met people all over that campus that I still know today. I have what I think is a very balanced view of the place, that not only keeps its past in perspective but views the university as a whole and not just in context of its athletic programs. During homecoming week, I’ll still attend alumni events.
So here’s the completely unsatisfactory answer for most people. I have positive views of both schools. They are, in my view, the two most important institutions in the state of Kentucky. There are a multitude of good and talented people at both of them. When they do well — in athletics and everything else — it is good for the state.
The problem most fans have is this — it is not enough for them that you say good things about their team. They want you to say bad things about the other team. U of L fans don’t think we run down John Calipari enough. UK fans don’t think we give Rick Pitino enough grief.
I got an email last week from a U of L fan saying, “You NEVER write anything positive about U of L.” This came just days after I wrote a column about U of L defensive lineman Greg Scruggs talking to schoolkids, and a very complimentary column about U of L soccer coach Ken Lolla, who has that program ranked No. 1 in the nation. They were not only overwhelmingly positive pieces, but about subjects that nobody else was talking about. And there are many, many more. I was the first to write the Stefan LeFors story. I was the one who chronicled U of L’s run to the Final Four. Over my decade of covering U of L sports, the positive stories probably outnumber the negative 10-to-1. So why would someone say I “never” write anything positive? Because it’s what they want to believe. And because these days, people only remember the negative. We live in a day when people want their news to line up with their beliefs (FoxNews, MSNBC).
And I believe we live in what is being termed the “crybaby culture.” And it exists in both places (note the howling of UK fans at recent media coverage of issues involving their players). And in far more than just sports. Take a look at the political races.
As for UK fans who say I “pick on UK,” I have written some awfully positive things about Calipari, and as far as I know, I’m the only one to bring up on a regular basis the letter from the former NCAA compliance director clearing Calipari of any involvement in the Marcus Camby situation. In Rich Brooks’ final years at UK, a quote from me was on his bio page of the media guide. I’ve gone out of my way to tell good stories at UK where I’ve been able to get at them — such as my feature on Tim Masthay, or my look at how Calipari’s style seems to fit and get the best out of today’s elite players. I also was a pretty consistent defender of DeMarcus Cousins, who I thought was no different from many other “tough guy” players I’ve covered, including Louisivlle’s Ellis Myles. Which, of course, incensed Louisville fans.
When I wrote several times in my blog that the chances of anything coming from the Eric Bledsoe investigation were slim, U of L fans accused me of being a UK homer. No, I was writing an opinion that turned out to be quite accurate. U of L fans wanted me to blast UK for recruiting Bledsoe, wanted me to rail on the whole grade-change topic as regards student athletes. Which is fine, except that there’s a player on U of L’s football team that had not one, but nine, grade changes. (Oh, and UK fans think I’m a U of L homer for not writing about him — which I did, last fall, before he enrolled.)
Are there differences between the reactions of the fan bases? I’ll only say that I’m more likely to hear from U of L fans after positive stories than I am from UK fans after positive stories. UK fans do not respond to positive stories about their teams. But you criticize them one time, and it seems you get branded, and they let you hear about it.
Now, if you’re not offering some criticism, you’re not doing your job. And I’ve criticized coaches and aspects of both programs. I called UK an NBA farm team and questioned whether Calipari wasn’t flirting with the kind of year North Carolina just had if he’s going to hope for significant numbers of one-and-done players. At U of L, I hammered Steve Kragthorpe pretty hard, and recently have questioned Rick Pitino’s “bridge season” terminology.
The bottom line is that if a reader believes you to be a “homer” to the other guy, then he or she is going to perceive slights in almost anything you write. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about the exclamation point in Yum! (it really does bother me) and U of L fans thought I was criticizing their program. It had nothing to do with U of L. I think it’s a silly name. It was an unorthodox sports column, and probably was more of a Metro-type column, but generated more positive and widespread national response than anything I’ve written lately. I even noted that the scoreboard wasn’t working right on the day of the scrimmage and retold about Pitino yelling over, “Maybe we should’ve gotten the $3 million scoreboard.” Some U of L fans actually thought I was saying that this state-of-the-art arena had a scoreboard that wouldn’t go over 100. It just wasn’t working that day. People wrote about how stupid it was to write about such a thing. Yet it was one of our most-read pieces of the week. You never know.
People sometimes take things too seriously, especially as regards the rivalry. I’m not buying into that. It’s still a game. It’s still just entertainment. When I give an opinion on Enes Kanter or Gorgui Dieng or Eric Bledsoe or Preston Knowles, it’s what I think. I don’t calculate it for effect with readers or fan bases.
One last thing. Both fan bases like to send me stuff and say, “Why don’t you try to be a REAL investigative journalist?” I’m a columnist. I’m paid for my opinion. You don’t want your opinion writers leading investigations because it undermines the credibility of the investigation. The perception is that if someone has published his opinion on something, his investigation is only going to go after information that will confirm his opinion, not information that could dispute it. Most reputable newspapers don’t allow columnists to be involved in those investigations. It’s a good practice.
Anyway, that’s probably far more than you wanted. But it’s the best I can tell you.
I have an appreciation for both programs. I criticize them both. As long as both fan bases think I’m out to get theirs or that I’m a homer for the other, I feel like I’m striking some kind of balance.
Thanks for the question, and the opportunity to give far too long an answer!
And I guarantee you that fans of both schools will take this response and find evidence in it of why I hate their school and love the other. And maybe that’s just how it works.