I was just nine years old in 1996, the year my Syracuse University fanhood truly began, and I remember (not well) the night that the Orangemen lost the national title game to the Kentucky Wildcats, 76-67, in East Rutherford, NJ. I recall sitting alone (actually, my dad was asleep in the recliner next to me) and feeling the pain of yet another "hometown" team falling oh-so-short of wining the biggest game in its sport (I'm also a Buffalo Bills fan). I might have been only nine, but after that game every time I heard the names: Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, Tony Delk and Rick Pitino (unfortunately, that name hasn't gone away) it made me wince just a bit.
For a long while - basically, until SU won its first national title in 2003 - I disliked the Kentucky basketball program very much. However, the tide on my Wildcat hatred turned a bit after I began to get older, liked Ashley Judd movies more, visited Louisville last June (what a beautiful city) and understood how much the Kentucky basketball program means to its sport. There's no arguing that Syracuse basketball fans have an undying love for their team, but Kentucky blue-bloods have a George Steinbrenner-like love affair with Dr. Naismith's sport.
How is that possible, you may ask. Well, let's pretend that SU head coach Jim Boeheim was the coach of Kentucky in '96 (just flip-flop the program's name, but keep the school's results). There's no way that Boeheim would have remained at the helm of the UK's program after the '95-96 season. Especially, after losing the '87 national championship game to Indiana, being knocked out by No. 15-seeded Richmond in the first round of the '90-91 NCAA Tournament and losing another tournament final in '96.
(Tubby Smith, who was the Wildcats coach from '97-07, won a National Title in his first year, compiled 10 consecutive 20-win seasons that included as many NCAA Tournament invites and four Elite 8 appearances; and left college basketball's best job for Minnesota after the '06-07 season.)
"Sorry Jimmy, you may be one of those Lexingtonians that grew up here, played here, was an assistant coach here, but you didn't win the BIG basketball games," the UK supporters would say. "You need to go!"
That type of Boss-like thinking doesn't translate in SU country (Boeheim has been the Orange's coach for 35 seasons despite some of his "lackluster" performances), but it does in the Bluegrass State. It's assumed that's why Smith left; and was the reason Billy Gillispie, who took over after Smith, was fired after just two seasons of modeling UK-embroidered gym wear -- Gillispie was just recently hired as the Texas Tech head coach. However, who can doubt the UK brass' quick-trigger decision-making now?
You can't. Not after John Calipari, who given an eight-year, $31.65 contract by UK a day after the Calipari-led Memphis program reached the national title game in '09 (they lost, 75-68, to Kansas), brought in freshman guard John Wall in his first season (which raised the programs profile back into the national spotlight); and just recently snapped the Wildcats' 12-year Final Four drought in his second campaign. (Much like Joe Torre did in his first season with the Yankees in '96.)
The best part of this story for UK fans isn't that the Wildcats made it to the Final Four (yes, it's a part of it), but it's how Calipari did it. It wasn't with players like Wall or Derrick Rose. It was with a bunch of no-names who actually needed to be coached.
"If the notion that Calipari is a recruiter more than a coach didn't end there, it should end after this season," wrote columnist Eric Crawford of The Courier-Journal wrote on Sunday after Kentucky's 76-69 over No. 2-seeded North Carolina Tarheels. "Because this season, he hasn't just done it with a trio of talented freshmen — and there is NBA talent there — but by developing, through sometimes painful effort, three veteran holdovers from the Billy Gillispie era, all of them guys who have been on the rumor mill out of town at some point during their UK careers."
The more you look at the Calipari-Kentucky relationship the more it makes sense: Calipari is as likable as he's unlikeable, as is UK. Calipari seems to do whatever it takes to win, as does UK. Yeah, each may have a shady-thinking past, but who now cares? UK is winning BIG basketball games and that's all that matters. (Sound familiar, New York fans?)
Come Saturday at 8:49 p.m., when UK is scheduled to tip off against the No. 3-seeded UConn Huskies (30-9) at Reliant Stadium in Houston, TX., UK (29-8) will more than likely be the villain (even more so if the Wildcats make the final game against either No. 11 Va. Commonwealth Rams or No. 8 Buttler Bulldogs on Monday). But like that March day in '96 and Steinbrenner's Yankees from '96 to the present, the blue-bloods don't really care because they came here to win and break the hearts of nine-year-olds everywhere.
-- SB Nation's A Sea Of Blue has everything Kentucky basketball.