College Sports

Louisville basketball: The best show in town

(L-R) Chane Behanan #21, head coach Rick Pitino and Russ Smith #2 of the Louisville Cardinals celebrate in the final minute as they won 85-63 against the Duke Blue Devils during the Midwest Regional Final round of the 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 31, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(L-R) Chane Behanan #21, head coach Rick Pitino and Russ Smith #2 of the Louisville Cardinals celebrate in the final minute as they won 85-63 against the Duke Blue Devils during the Midwest Regional Final round of the 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 31, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) Getty Images

The night after Louisville clinched its second consecutive Final Four appearance, a handful of people watched a replay of the win against Duke at Kern’s Korner on Bardstown Road.

“That’s a foul!” longtime fan Russ Ferreri called out, and he was right, as Tyler Thornton fouled out, and Luke Hancock made three free throws to extend Louisville’s lead to 76-59.

Ferreri’s enthusiasm wasn’t dampened by the fact he already knew what happened. He attended the games in Indianapolis, part of the sea of red that overtook the city with chants of C-A-R-D-S in downtown restaurants and bars and in Lucas Oil Stadium. Once Louisville won the Duke game – again – the bartender replayed Louisville-Oregon in the Sweet 16.

Ferreri, a Louisville native, didn’t attend the school, going to Vanderbilt and getting his MBA at Notre Dame instead. But, as he puts it, “blood is thicker than water,” and he has always cheered for his Cardinals.

It’s a good time to be a Louisville fan – the football team pounded Florida in the Sugar Bowl, the women’s basketball team beat Baylor and advanced to the Final Four, the men’s team has made back-to-back Final Fours and Kentucky lost in the first round of the NIT.

The Cardinals have most valuable program, according to Forbes Magazine. Louisville was the top market for ESPN’s regular-season college basketball telecasts for the 11th consecutive year. The Cardinals are headed to the ACC in 2014 – an “incredible blessing” athletic director Tom Jurich said – but first, they are the favorite this weekend to bring home the program’s third national championship.

“It’s like we won Powerball and married the prettiest girl in school and our kids are all going to Harvard for free,” said Terry Meiners, the longtime afternoon talk show host on WHAS-AM. “It’s like everything is perfect right now for people in this city.”

Cards ‘are the pro team’

Before Ferreri migrated to Kern’s Korner, he had visited the Mole Hole, a small, men’s-only bar in the basement of Audubon Country Club. For as long as the 108-year-old club has existed, men have gathered in the dimly lit, wood-paneled bar to talk Louisville sports 364 days a year.

“I’m not sure why we have to be closed on Christmas,” said Hal Bomar, the club’s president.

Bomar grew up on Louisville basketball. His father, Harold, played for the Cardinals in the 1940s. Hal started going to games when he was 4, running around the Freedom Hall bleachers. Bomar has had season tickets since he was 14 and went on to swim at the school. He counts Jurich, the athletic director, and Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who belongs to the club, as good friends.

Freedom Hall sits empty today, containing no trace of Louisville’s achievements. The Cardinals’ arena from 1956-2010, spanning eight of the program’s 10 Final Fours and both national championships, is used for occasional events, like tractor pulls and concerts, and is home to the Kentucky athletic Hall of Fame, where plaques honoring notable Kentucky Wildcats, such as Tubby Smith, dot the walls.

The Cardinals took their banners downtown to the KFC Yum! Center, a state-of-the-art, 22,090-seat facility that has been home to two Final Four teams in its 3-year existence. The glass windows that line the front of the building and cover the upper rounded portion that sticks out over I-64 offer a stark contrast to the plain, concrete front of Freedom Hall. Additional seating has allowed for more spectators, too.

“The atmosphere at the Yum! Center is electric,” said Denny Crum, the Hall of Fame coach of the Cardinals from 1971-2001. ”They love their college basketball here.”

Ticket sales surged 28 percent and donations to the team increased 84 percent, to over $20 million, the year the Yum! Center opened. It’s the main piece in the Louisville basketball machine, worth a nation-best $38.5 million, according to Forbes, outpacing Kansas ($32.9 million), North Carolina ($32.8 million) and Kentucky ($32.1 million).

“We don’t have professional sports, so we are the professional team,” Pitino said. “The fervor is incredible.”

Dr. Dunkenstein, Crum built it

Crum, along with 1980 national player of the year Darrell Griffith, gave Louisville basketball its national reputation. Crum left John Wooden and UCLA in 1971 and promptly took the Cardinals to the Final Four in his first season. He made it again in 1975, the same year he secured a commitment from Griffith, who was born and raised in Louisville. Griffith promised the city a national championship. And in 1980, his senior year, he delivered.

“Everybody was out, with their horns honking, driving up and down the streets, walking up and down the streets,” Crum said, remembering the team’s return. “They had a big pep rally in Freedom Hall, there must have been 20,000 people in there. It was a fun time.”

Sunday night, students were out celebrating on Cardinal Boulevard, a few blocks from the apartment complex Griffith lived in during his playing days. Gray’s college bookstore, located on that street, initially ordered 3,000 T-shirts to commemorate this year’s Final Four and have placed additional orders for shirts honoring Kevin Ware, the guard who suffered a gruesome compound fracture in his leg against the Blue Devils.

Louisville’s most recent title came under Crum in 1986. There have been three Final Fours, including this year, under Pitino since, but no titles.

“It’s way overdue,” Griffith said. “That’s 27 years. For a basketball program to have that kind of drought, you really, really, really want to get one. And this could be the year.”

The Cardinals fell off during the late 1990s. When Jurich left Colorado State and arrived at Louisville in 1997 – after turning down the job four times – the basketball team was on probation for extra benefits violations and went 12-20 in his first year. A 12-19 season in 2001 brought the end for Crum. Jurich targeted one candidate to replace him: former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino.

“He had experience in cleaning up a program, which he had to do for Kentucky and would have to do for Louisville,” Jurich said. “He ran a clean program and got very good kids. He was exciting basketball and a well-known commodity. He would get our fan base totally energized.

“It was like bringing Elvis home. The hard part was convincing him.”

Pitino came, and fans have been patiently waiting for that national championship since.

In Pitino they trust

“There’s an unwritten rule that we’re hoping and praying coach Pitino can bring us a national championship,” said Wiley Brown, another member of the 1980 national championship team. “When Rick Pitino was hired, all the fans, with the success he had at Kentucky, we said this guy is going to bring us a national championship.”

There was a Final Four in 2005. But there was an embarrassing Pitino sex scandal tied to an FBI extortion case that came to light in 2009, followed by back-to-back, first-round NCAA tournament exits in 2010 and 2011

“It was getting a little restless,” said Brown. “You see Kentucky, with coach Calipari, up there doing well. And Louisville fans want the same thing or better. But they’re patient, our fans are patient. They might get a little restless, but they didn’t go overboard.”

Rationality is a virtue of the Cardinals fan base, a direct response to the championship-or-bust attitude of Kentucky fans. Louisville fans were realistic about their chances in last year’s Final Four against Kentucky. To them, it was a major accomplishment that a team that lost three of its last four regular-season games made it that far.

Expectations are higher this year. The Cardinals opted not to cut down nets after winning the Big East title or the Midwest Region in Indianapolis.

Cutting down the nets in Atlanta would make this year’s team the heroes of the city, an honor that will last the rest of their lifetimes.

“It’s been 30-something years since I won a championship here, and I’m still signing autographs as I walk around the community,” said Brown, who coaches at nearby Division-II Indiana University Southeast. “And that’s what for these current guys at Louisville, that’s what it’s going to mean to them. After their basketball careers are over, they can come back to this community and be welcomed with open arms.”

In 2014, Louisville will join the ACC, reuniting with old Metro Conference foes Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Florida State, in addition to former Big East competitors Boston College, Miami, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Notre Dame. The Cardinals would like nothing more than to come in as a recent national champion.

“Rick Pitino is giddy like a little kid, like when he first took the job. I mean, he’s feeling it,” said Meiners, the talk show host and longtime Pitino friend. “He’s climbed back up that mountain, and he’s right there ready to plant the flag.”

The city, full of diehards like those watching replays of old games in Kern’s Korner, are ready to travel to Atlanta and bring home the title. Bomar, the Mole Hole ring leader, went down with a red-and-black, argyle-patterned jacket for a friend. He’ll be in another C-A-R-D-S chanting red sea, hoping and praying their team fulfills their national championship dreams.

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