SO SIMILAR, YET SO DIFFERENT|
They are two of the most prolific programs in college basketball history, but a closer look at North Carolina and Kentucky reveals strikingly different approaches that have led to the same winning result.
Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Thad Williamson
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins
ny student of international affairs will tell you that
sometimes the best way to learn about your own culture
is to go study another one. That’s also true in looking at
basketball programs -- and there’s no more interesting program to
compare North Carolina with than that of the University of Kentucky.
Both schools have vast and knowledgeable fan bases, storied
histories and long memories, 20,000-plus-seat arenas to play in, top-notch
current coaches, and an abiding commitment to excellence.
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.
“Tubby [Smith] is one of the greatest
friends I have in coaching, one of the
guys I respect the most of anyone in
coaching.” – Roy Williams
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
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.”
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.
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
Rasheed Wallace and Andre Riddick scuffle during UNC's 74-61 win over UK in the 1995 NCAA Tournament.
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
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.”)
There's no more interesting program to compare North Carolina with than that of the University of Kentucky.
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 the Tar Heel basketball tradition for that of the
Wildcats -- even if Carolina never does catch up to Kentucky in all-time
wins or national titles.
Longtime Inside Carolina contributor and columnist Thad Williamson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is the author of the esteemed book “More than a Game: Why North
Carolina Basketball Means So Much to So Many.”