Off The Record: 'Lousyville' morphs into 'Rickyville'

March 08, 2004|HERB BROCK

With conference tournaments commencing, this week marks the beginning of "March Madness" in the college basketball world. And it also happens to mark the end of the third year of Rick Pitino's tenure in the capital of that world, or so he and University of Louisville supporters would have us believe.

Despite the anger, sense of betrayal and, yes, fears University of Kentucky fans felt about their former coach teaming up with their archrival, they will have to admit now that it's clear that Pitino belongs in Louisville. In fact, he belongs there more than he ever belonged in Lexington - and will be there forever (wink) thanks to a new contract deal announced Thursday that will pay him a Warren Buffet-like wage through the next millennium. In fact, it was a marriage of the two biggest egos made in hoops heaven. (And, yes, I loved every ounce of that ego when it was in Lexington.)


And I should've known from the beginning it was a perfect match. Long before Pitino came to U of L - years before Lousyville morphed into Rickyville - I got to experience the city's and university's inflated view of itself.

Rewind to the late 1960s. Some guys and I at Georgetown College were looking for something to do besides study one Saturday, so we decided to make a road trip to Louisville to watch the G-town Tigers play the U of L Cards. The Tigers were, and still are, an NAIA power but they would be the grass to the Cardinals' mower, pushed by All-American Wes Unseld.

The Tigers played valiantly and kept U of L's margin of victory respectable. I can't use the same adjective to describe a group of Cardinal fans sitting next to us. Once they found out we were from G-town, they kept up a constant barrage of smack talk: "Hey, hillbillies, how does it feel being in civilization?"... "You all find a parking space for that tractor you rode into town on?"... "Who gave you all those shoes and shirts to wear?"

What was interesting about the unimaginative, all-too-typical attack on stereotypical Kentuckians was that only two in our group of eight were from Kentucky - and they were from Louisville. The rest of us were from such hayseed havens as Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati and Nashville. Even more interesting was that the slurs were spewed from a bunch of illiterates who doubled their negatives and must have missed the remedial English class on noun-verb agreement, not to mention more than a few dental appointments.

But these guys thought of themselves as sophisticates from the big city and of us as hicks from the sticks. And it's a separation that exists to this day. It's the city-state of Louisville vs. the rest of the commonwealth. This Louisville vs. the rest of Kentucky animus goes both ways. For instance, when Midwestern, Brooks Brothers, wing-tipped Louisvillians sneer at residents of the state's Second City, Southern, blue-blazered, Weejuned Lexingtonians will sneer back with equal snootiness. Nonetheless, Louisville remains the state's First City, based on population.

Fast-forward to 2004. While I was dismayed Pitino went to U of L, I have decided it was a good match: a man and a city with big egos, exaggerated views of themselves, and enough arrogance between them to give Jacques Chirac and Paris a run for their francs.

However, does Pitino's prowess as a basketball coach qualify him to be the "human face" of an entire city? That's what the public editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote in her response to readers' complaints regarding the paper's pantingly breathless coverage of the coach's recent treatment for a pain in his left side. As a C-J subscriber, I hadn't seen such crisis-style coverage since 9/11. There were two main stories, three sidebars, two columns, one editorial and lots of photos.

The aforementioned editor said Mr. Human Face is by far the city's most prominent face because the other candidate for No. 1, Muhammad Ali, doesn't live in his hometown any more. What about Mayor Jerry Abramson, the U of L coach formerly known as Denny Crum, the surviving Bingham family members and other Louisvillians who have done an incredible amount of good for a lot longer for the city? Are they the human derrieres of the city?

From reading the C-J and listening to WHAS since Pitino came to town, I have my own idea about Pitino's quick elevation to No. 1 citizen. I believe a lot of it has to do with the fact that he no longer is the No. 1 citizen of Lexington and, by extension via Big Blue Nation, the rest of the state.

A particular columnist and some radio commentators in Louisville have basically said that Pitino never belonged in Lexington during his eight years as UK coach. He is a sophisticated, urbane kind of guy who never fit in with all the faux Southerners and real hillbillies that surrounded him. To put it another way, his big head could only fit in a big city.

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