Seven Midwestern teams in the Sweet 16 have something in common: a hatred of one another
It seems like a nice, quaint Middle America story that seven of the schools in the Sweet 16 are located within a two-hour drive of Cincinnati. It’s a nod to a college hoops holy ground, that while lacking a cool nickname such as Tobacco Road exceeds its Carolina peers in depth of passion.
Indiana, Louisville, Kentucky, Xavier, Cincinnati, Ohio State and Ohio University are all still going. We could even have an all-region Final Four. Expect lots of footage of sweeping cornfields and old backboards tacked onto decaying barns.
This is a feel-good story except for one thing: the River of Hate (not the Ohio River) that runs through the region.
Forget Midwestern hospitality, these seven schools share one common thread: a distinct distaste for their neighbors. Through the decades, there have been endless rivalries, on-court brawls, coaches at each other’s throats, media smack talk and even litigation over the names of the schools.
And that doesn’t even include the antics of Bob Knight, who attended Ohio State, coached at Indiana, at one point or the other bashed half the other schools, and now won’t even say the name “Kentucky.”
Here is your primer for the various battles, past and present:
The best place to start is Kentucky because pretty much everyone hates Kentucky. The Wildcats are the most successful program – seven national titles. They also often run afoul with the NCAA (although there are not a lot of virgins among this group).
Rooting against Kentucky coach John Calipari and his roster of future NBA talent is a national phenomenon (they also have arguably the most fans, so it evens out).
Nowhere is this done better than at Louisville, where the old feeling has gained new spice with the battle between Calipari and Cardinals coach Rick Pitino. They exchange pointed one-liners in the media, mock each other privately and generally can’t stand each other, which is funny since Pitino recommended Calipari for his first job at Massachusetts, Pitino’s alma mater.
Kentucky fans can’t stand Pitino, of course. He coached the Wildcats to the 1996 NCAA title but eventually left for the Boston Celtics only to commit the unpardonable sin of returning to the college game to take a job at Kentucky’s archrival. As such, nowhere were his personal stumbles more celebrated than in Lexington.
Cincinnati sits on the Kentucky border and its airport and parts of its metro region include the commonwealth, meaning the Big Blue Nation is everywhere, and thus in the face of Cincinnati and Xavier fans. It’s an underrated and understated discomfort.
Meanwhile, Indiana and Kentucky have always been bitter rivals, staging an annual game that for years was held in neutral sites and for a stretch could even put 40,000-plus fans in the dome in Indianapolis. IU’s buzzer-beating defeat of UK this year in Bloomington brought the animosity back. The two schools meet Friday in Atlanta.
About the only bit of thawing in this deal is the fact that Calipari and Hoosier coach Tom Crean are close friends. But cordiality pretty much ends there.
Crean and Pitino are not close, dating back to various battles in the Big East when Crean was at Marquette. And the IU-UL fans, particularly in Southern Indiana, are not friendly unless discussing their mutual distaste for UK.
Crean isn’t a big fan of Ohio State either. He and Buckeye coach Thad Matta have sparred for a few years, partly because of Matta’s success recruiting the state of Indiana. Crean even sent out a tweet earlier this year that sniped at what he perceived to be the Buckeyes’ self-promoting assistant coaches.
This goes deep. And there’s always the uneasiness of Knight, which was most perfectly illustrated during the early 1990s in the case of power forward Lawrence Funderburke, a Columbus native who originally wanted to go to UK, enrolled at Indiana only to sue the school and claim Knight was restricting him from transferring, and ended up after his freshman year back home at Ohio State.
Matta is otherwise a fountain of tranquility in this region. He used to coach Xavier and is still well regarded there even though Ohio State staged a painful comeback on the Musketeers in the 2007 NCAA tournament.
Matta’s ties run deep here. Ohio coach John Groce was one of his assistants at Xavier and Ohio State. Plus, his current staff includes assistant Jeff Boals, who was a two-time captain at Ohio during the great Gary Trent teams of the mid-1990s.
That’s just some of the coaching ties. Louisville and Cincinnati have been fighting since their time in the Metro Conference and the rivalry continues to this day, and the fans’ animosity for each other remains constant even though both share a common bond: getting left behind in conference re-shuffling.
Cincinatti coach Mick Cronin worked for Pitino at Louisville and still calls him “coach Pitino” with great reverence. So at least they like each other.
It goes without saying that Ohio State and Cincinnati don’t. Some of it is big brother/little brother. Some of it is the dueling between Columbus and Cincinnati, which are very different despite being just a 90-minute drive apart in the same state. Columbus is conservative and truly Midwestern; Cincinnati is more of a loose river town with a Southern feel.
The battle dates back to the Bearcats beating the Buckeyes in the 1961 and 1962 national title games. The two schools didn’t schedule a game for four decades after that. In the 1990s, when both programs were reaching the Final Four, there was considerable bad blood between then-coaches Bob Huggins (UC) and Jim O’Brien (OSU) and their respective staffs.
In 2005, the teams finally met at a December event in Indianapolis. The game came about only when the outgoing Cincinnati athletic director signed a deal two weeks after Huggins was fired. It was a game that the Bearcats had little chance to win. They play again Thursday in Boston.
Cincinnati and Xavier sit just miles apart but form perhaps the most simmering rivalry in college hoops. Evidence A is the December brawl between the two teams that led to mass suspensions and almost derailed both teams’ seasons. And that’s just the most recent event. Former Xavier coach Pete Gillen and Huggins got into it regularly in the early 1990s, when current coaches Cronin and Chris Mack were students at the schools.
Fundamentally the two schools are at odds: one is a big state school, the other is a more affluent private Catholic one. There is little common ground. No one knows if the annual Crosstown Shootout will even continue after this year.
Then there is Ohio University, which as a member of the Mid-American Conference is the decided small-budget Cinderella now butting its head into the big-boy battle royal.
The Bobcats would be pretty excited if anyone cared enough about them to start a rivalry.
A better regional representative would’ve been West Virginia. This is in part because Huggins has scraped with just about everyone and in part because the actual Hatfield and McCoy feud took place along the Kentucky-West Virginia border. The Mountaineers got bounced early.
Ohio isn’t free and clear, though. There’s always competition with Ohio State for funding, students and attention. And then there is perhaps the most telling fight of all in this region: the one about who owned the name “Ohio.”
One school is named Ohio. The other Ohio State. It’s not uncommon – Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Florida and Florida State, etc. Except that in Columbus there is Ohio Stadium, Script Ohio and the ubiquitous chant, “O-H-I-O.”
In the early 1990s, Ohio University patented the term “Ohio.” In 1997, Ohio State sued, saying it should also own the term “Ohio.” Needless to say, Ohio University wasn’t pleased.
“Ohio State is interested in being Ohio State University and Ohio University,” then Ohio athletic director Tom Boeh said at the time. “I think it’s odd as heck that they want to have both names.”
It wasn’t quite that – it was about licensing money – but what’s better than one school trying to claim the name of another? Ohio ended up winning the legal battle and Ohio State football players started referring to themselves as “THE Ohio State University” on Monday Night Football.
The spat was mostly forgotten until Michigan football coach Brady Hoke started referring to Ohio State as “Ohio,” which caused both schools to dislike him.
Then Ohio beat Michigan en route to this year’s Sweet 16, pleasing Bobcat fans most and Buckeye fans second.
Perhaps it was the perfect way for this regional dominance to grow to seven.
Nothing brings people together like shared hatred.
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