The schools even share a common connection to Kansas University -- both Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith played their college basketball for coach Phog Allen in Lawrence, albeit some 30 years apart. With two years yet to run in a six-game home-and-home series, the two programs and their fans have gotten the chance to know one another better in recent years. Local Kentucky media consider North Carolina the Wildcats' third biggest rival behind Louisville (in-state bragging rights plus the Rick Pitino factor) and Duke (that Christian Laettner shot still hurts in Lexington).
Whereas Dean Smith avoided expressing anything beyond generic respect for Rupp when he became the all-time winningest Division I coach in 1997, Tubby Smith and Roy Williams have a warm friendship. "I have as much respect for Roy Williams and North Carolina's program as any program in the country," Tubby Smith said after coaching his club to a 61-56 victory in January over the Tar Heels.
"Tubby is one of the greatest friends I have in coaching, one of the guys I respect the most of anyone in coaching," added Williams after the same game. Whether or not the head-to-head series continues beyond 2006, Carolina and Kentucky will continue to be rivals, simply by virtue of being two proud schools vying to be among the nation's elite year-in and year-out -- even if that rivalry takes on a friendlier tone on Tubby and Roy's respective watches.
Yet significant differences remain between the two programs' histories and self-images. Whereas until recently North Carolina's program had an almost unblemished national image, Kentucky is perhaps only now fully escaping the shadow of Sports Illustrated's (in)famous "Kentucky's Shame" cover in 1989, which appeared in the wake of NCAA investigations and eventual probation.
Likewise, Adolph Rupp's all-white "Runts" of 1966, a remarkable team that made it to an NCAA final without a starter over 6-foot-5, has served as the hapless punching bag in countless documentaries about Texas Western's famous victory in the title game with an all-black starting line-up, a game that marked a turning point in the integration of the black athlete into college sports. Moreover, Kentucky fans are often portrayed in the national media as unreflective fanatics who are quick to jump down Tubby Smith's throat after every loss (or even every missed jump shot) and who seem to take the whole thing a little too seriously.
Are these perceptions fair? A closer look reveals a more complicated reality.
While Rupp was criticized for not signing a black recruit until 1969, he began recruiting black players in 1964 (losing Wes Unseld to rival Louisville) -- as early as any other major southern university (including UNC). More significantly, in 1990 Kentucky became the first Division I school to hire a female assistant coach for a men's basketball team, Bernadette Locke, and now has a black head coach in Tubby Smith, who, despite occasional carping, is highly regarded in Lexington.
What about past NCAA violations, or a general climate of overzealousness? After all, Kentucky was the school which built the controversial Joe B. Hall residential dorm exclusively for basketball players in 1979, leading to an NCAA ban on athlete-only dorms, and it was the school which got caught sending cash to a recruit's father by mail in 1988.
But Kentucky fans now believe -- as do close followers of the program -- that NCAA violations are a thing of the past. Admirably, both published official histories of Kentucky basketball and the UK Basketball Museum (adjacent to the arena) openly acknowledge the major violations that occurred under Eddie Sutton's watch in the 1980s, as well as earlier infractions in the 1950s under Rupp and the 1970s under Joe B. Hall.
The scandal-plagued days of the late 1980s "now seem like 100 years ago," noted veteran columnist Mark Story of the Lexington Herald-Leader, the newspaper that played a leading role in investigating irregularities in the Kentucky program during that time. "In retrospect, it was almost a positive," he said. "The program crashed beneath its own excess, but Rick Pitino came and rebuilt it in a different, better way."
But even if Kentucky has overcome a dubious racial legacy as well as past NCAA problems, aren't those fans a little too rabid? Story, for one, believes that Kentucky supporters deserve more credit than often given. "There is a lunatic fringe here as there is with any group of fans," he said. "Here, the lunatic fringe may be just 1 percent, but because the fan base is so large there are more of them in raw numbers.
"Back in the 80s, if you just listened to talk radio, you would have thought Eddie Sutton was the greatest guy and everyone loved him," added Story. "But any time anyone took a poll, it found just the opposite -- most people wanted the program to be clean. The loudest voices are not always the most representative."
Yet a visit to Rupp Arena on game day shows that Kentucky fans do have a significantly different culture from that present in Chapel Hill. For starters, because Rupp Arena is attached to a mall/hotel complex in downtown Lexington, Wildcats fans often come to games hours early and stay long after for social gatherings or meals adjacent to the arena, while local radio stations broadcast all day long from just outside the arena.
Students occupy only one end zone in the lower level of Rupp Arena itself -- but Kentucky simply has a louder crowd than is heard in the vast majority of Smith Center games. Every made Wildcat basket brings a loud roar comparable to a goal being scored in a European club soccer game, and any run of consecutive Kentucky baskets is likely to create pandemonium.
That enthusiasm, however, is accompanied by comportment that would generally be seen as taboo in the Dean Dome. One can hear more profanity in a single game on press row at Rupp Arena than in a decade's worth of games in Chapel Hill, and yelling at referees is as likely to come from smartly-dressed forty-something fans as from paint-faced undergraduates, with both male and female fans getting in on the act.
Moreover, when Kentucky shot poorly and fell behind 28-20 at halftime to Carolina in January, the Wildcats were booed off their own court. Such an event -- which did not happen even in the lowest depths of the 2002 season in the Smith Center -- would be considered a major, newsworthy item in Chapel Hill, fodder for a week's worth of newspaper columns. In Lexington, the booing passed without comment from either Tubby Smith or the local media.
Why not? First, because it's taken for granted in Lexington that the head coach and the team are always under tight scrutiny all the time: as Story put it, "The bar is set high and people hold people to account."
Second, the social profile of Kentucky fans is a bit different than that found at UNC. The bulk of the crowd in the Smith Center on game nights is well educated and well heeled, and the fan base as a whole is dominated by middle class college graduates. At Kentucky, while the Wildcats are strongly supported by the local civic and social elites, the backbone of the fan base consists of regular working people whose allegiance to UK is based on geography, history and regional identity, rather than on having attended the university. For such fans, as legendary Kentucky journalist Billy Reed noted, Kentucky basketball's success provides "retribution for all the mean hillbilly jokes and cruel social stereotypes."
Third, at Kentucky there has never been any doubt that the main purpose of the basketball program is to win games -- period. Historians of Kentucky basketball point to Rupp's famous quote that "If winning isn't so important, then why do we keep score?"
Indeed, whereas the six year stretch (1990-96) in which Carolina held the alltime victories lead over Kentucky was seen in Chapel Hill as just another feather in Dean Smith's cap, it was an enormous emotional blow to Kentucky fans -- and cause for great rejoicing when Pitino's 1996 team reclaimed the lead en route to a national title. Carolina's recent struggles were welcomed by most Wildcat fans precisely because it allowed Kentucky to build the margin back to over 40 games. "I didn't sense nearly as much angst about Smith passing Rupp [in coaching victories] as when Carolina passed Kentucky as the all-time winningest program," Story said. "People in Kentucky really care about that."
The fact that Kentucky fans are so obsessed with being the all-time winningest program -- and that most North Carolina fans are not -- points to the most important difference between these two remarkable college basketball cultures.
Kentucky fans love their team, know their history, revere their former players and coaches (even Eddie Sutton is given a very respectful treatment by the UK Basketball Museum), and show up wherever the Wildcats play, in force. But Kentucky fans don't regard any of their former coaches as having any great social or moral significance. Indeed, probably the most revered figure in Kentucky basketball lore is not Rupp, but longtime radio broadcaster Cawood Ledford. Wildcat historians freely admit that Rupp was an arrogant, gruff man who had the respect but usually not the affection of his players, and cared about little else other than winning. (In 1958, Rupp told reporters that "Without victory, basketball has little meaning.")
In Chapel Hill, the situation is different: Carolina fans love the legacy of winning and the players and the history, but they also take pride in stories about Dean Smith playing a small part in integrating Chapel Hill in the late 1950s, in a historic ethos that says it's possible to win while treating every player with respect, in the 90 percent-plus graduation rate, and in the palpable sense of family that surrounds Carolina basketball to this day: When former Tar Heel guard Mike Pepper suffered a brain aneurysm in late December , former Tar Heel coaches and generations of former players immediately rallied to send Pepper and those close to him messages of support. That sense of family just doesn't exist at most schools.
Or to put it more bluntly, when six decades of former Tar Heel lettermen congregated [last February] for a reunion on the date of the Florida State game, you won't hear a single former Carolina player say they are less proud to be a Tar Heel or to be associated with the Smith legacy just because the Tar Heels are only No. 2 in all-time wins -- or because Smith perhaps didn't win as many national titles as he might have.
Simply put, if Kentucky basketball shows how a loyal fan base can help sustain a proud tradition over decades, Carolina basketball shows how it's possible to be extremely proud of on-court success without making those victories the sole barometer of a coach or a program.
Dean Smith liked to say that society puts too much emphasis on being No. 1, and many Tar Heel fans believed him. Most Kentucky fans -- and certainly Rupp himself -- would not. That fact doesn't mean Kentucky fans have no admirable qualities or deserve all the unflattering stereotypes, or that Carolina has nothing to learn from their bluegrass rivals, especially in terms of game atmosphere and sticking with a program that hits rock bottom.
It does, however, mean that the tradition and culture of Carolina basketball is qualitatively different from that of Kentucky's -- and there's nothing wrong with not only acknowledging but also celebrating that uniqueness. At the end of the day, while Carolina fans may feel frustrated with having lost to Kentucky four consecutive seasons, very few would trade
Longtime Inside Carolina contributor and columnist Thad Williamson (email@example.com) is the author of the esteemed book "More than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much to So Many."