Tuesday, March 27, 2012 | 8:32 p.m.
As the governor of Kentucky, John Y. Brown Jr. once revived a rivalry that now ranks among the greatest in college basketball. It is an in-state affair that started in 1913, stopped in 1922 and went dormant, save the rare chance meeting, for more than six decades.
To underscore the degree of difficulty involved in Brown’s feat, it took a bill in the state Legislature to put two universities separated by 75 miles back together on the court.
Brown did not simply plead with the University of Kentucky to resume its annual contest with the University of Louisville, a rivalry that seemed natural for two programs that are practically neighbors and rich in basketball history. Instead, Brown said in a telephone interview Monday that he and his fellow politicians forced an end to the Wildcats’ reluctance.
Asked to explain his strategy, Brown said: “I counted the votes on the board. I’m very nonpolitical, but that was probably my most political act. That one needed some real pushing.”
This year’s NCAA tournament, with Louisville and Kentucky advancing last weekend to the same national semifinal, reminded Brown of that time. In particular, he thought back to 1983, when the teams met in a regional final, the most meaningful matchup in their shared history, a berth in the Final Four at stake.
Back then, Brown, as much as anyone, straddled divided loyalties. Born and raised in Lexington, he earned undergraduate and law degrees from Kentucky. He was later the president of Kentucky Fried Chicken, which is based in Louisville, and helped buy the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association and keep them in the city to win the championship in 1975.
Thus when Louisville and Kentucky met in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1983, when the university bands played “My Old Kentucky Home” together before tipoff, Brown felt conflicted. Even his outfit reflected that inner turbulence.
“My wife had a seamstress,” Brown said. “I gave her a red coat, and I gave her a blue coat, and she put them together, half and half.” (Louisville won that game, and the teams resumed their series the next season.)
Brown still lives in Lexington, and he said he would root solely for Kentucky on Saturday, in person at the Superdome in New Orleans. The latest, greatest meeting between the rivals will be their first this deep into the postseason and the first Final Four intrastate matchup since Cincinnati topped Ohio State in the championship games in 1961 and ‘62.
The connections between these teams extend beyond their proximity. For instance, the last time Louisville and coach Rick Pitino advanced far into the tournament, in 2009, the Cardinals, then the No. 1 overall seed, fell to Michigan State in a regional final. That week Kentucky hired John Calipari as the coach, the same position Pitino held from 1989 to 1997. The same Pitino who won a championship with Kentucky in 1996, beating Calipari and Massachusetts in the Final Four.
To set up another meeting, Louisville advanced first last weekend -- a day before Kentucky. Immediately afterward, Pitino described the rivalry in passive-aggressive tones, alternately praising Kentucky and criticizing the Wildcats.
He called Kentucky, the tournament’s heavy favorite, “great,” and said he “marveled at their excellence.” He said he did not get into rivalries. And then he did.
“There’s so much petty jealousies,” Pitino said. “When I was at Kentucky, we would never get jealous of Louisville. There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us. They’ve got to put the fences up on bridges. There will be people consumed by Louisville. There’s no jealousy on our part.”
Clearly, though, Pitino’s supporters believe he is not given enough credit for the way he transformed the program at Kentucky. Not only did Pitino win the 1996 title, but Kentucky almost won again in ‘97, losing to Arizona in the final.
Pitino left after that to coach the Boston Celtics, then returned to Kentucky in 2001, but to the state, not the university.
Billy Donovan, the coach of Florida, who lost to Pitino on Saturday but worked for him at Kentucky, said Pitino took over a Wildcats program on probation, at rock bottom, not even eligible for the tournament.
“There is nobody that’s done a better eight-year coaching job than he did at Kentucky,” Donovan said. “He could have gone anywhere else, and there would be statues of him in Lexington, with what he’s done. But because of the rivalry, people can’t handle that.”
Not that Pitino always helps himself in that regard.
“I keep trying to tell our fans, we’re not Kentucky,” he said Saturday. “We have no desire to be Kentucky.”
The rivalry is good for the state of Kentucky and good for Gov. Steve Beshear, especially this week.
In a telephone interview, Beshear said the national semifinal would “put an international spotlight on our state.” For Beshear, the biggest problem is the pregame bet often made between two governors, as he cannot bet himself. He claimed no rooting interest in the game, deftly sidestepping a question about who he thought would win.
“I’ll tell you,” he said. “The Commonwealth of Kentucky is the winner here.”