The Louisville, Memphis State, and Cincinnati rivalries have spanned many decades and almost as many conferences. These rivalries, that are underappreciated nationally, hold a special place in the heart s of these three universities and fan bases. It is truly a love/hate relationship; we love to hate each other.
Many of my earliest memories as a Cardinal fan pits Milt Wagner against the Tigers. Denny Crum versus Dana Kirk. It seemed as though Milt never missed when he stepped to the free throw line with the
game on the line. Ahh the memories of watching the Cardinals on the bench dodge batteries hurled their way by rabid Memphis State fans. In all, the Cards and Tigers have played 87 times with the Cards holding a 52-34 advantage. They first met on January 6, 1949 at Memorial Gym with the Cards winning 72-53. They had played every season from 1967-68 until the 1990-91 season. They then played 11 more times in CUSA from 1994-95 until 2004-05 season. They met 3 times in a season 13 times. Memphis State beat the Cards for the Metro Conference Tournament title in 1982 and in 1987, while the Cards beat the Tigers for the title in 1986 and 1988.
The trio were conference rivals in the Missouri Valley Conference first starting in the 1960′s. Later came the Metro Conference, most memorable to me in the 1980′s. Memphis State and Cincinnati then left Louisville behind in the Metro to form the Great Midwest Conference for the 1990-91 season. With Florida State, Virginia Tech and South Carolina all gone from the Metro, I cant blame them looking back. They then put the band back together as they merged what was left of the Metro with the Great Midwest to form Conference USA. The fan bases were again at peace, as they could once again show how much they hated each other.
All were at peace, that is, except for Louisville’s football coach, who hated the idea of the Cardinals football program being part of a conference and hopped the first plane for the Oklahoma Sooners. The early days of CUSA saw Cincinnati dominate the basketball conference with coach Bob Huggins physical style of play and with players like Kenyan Martin. For Louisville it saw the end of Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum and the rise of future Hall of fame coach Rick Pitino. The football program proved the man with the pipe wrong and flourished in their new conference.
In 2005 it was the Tigers turn to be left behind as Louisville and Cincinnati took off for the Big East. This had to be devastating for the Tigers fans, losing really their only two rivals. To make it worse for them, the Tigers met the Cardinals for the CUSA Tournament Championship. Memphis State needed the win for the auto bid into the NCAA tourney, not to mention their possibly last hoorah with the hated and departing Cardinals. It was played at the home of the Tigers, the FedEx Forum. It was a thrilling game in which during one stretch of the first half saw both teams trade three pointers on four consecutive possessions. It was John Calipari versus Rick Pitino, Anthony Rice versus Francisco Garcia and, in a corporate sense, Fed Ex versus UPS.
It was a battle until after time expired as Darius Washington was fouled on a three pointer with Memphis Sate down two and 0′s on the clock. Cards fans, me included, were in disbelief. We couldn’t lose to the Tigers at the free throw line! Darius stepped up to the line and made the first. After winking at his coach and teammates he stepped to the line and missed the second. OT was at least guaranteed for the Cards. He collapsed to the floor in defeat after missing the third and Cards fans rejoiced. Still we couldn’t help to feel a little pain for Darius as he had to be carried off the floor by Calipari and his teammates. Victory was ours in more ways then one, we won the title and we weren’t the ones being left behind this time. I’m sure that moment helped fuel Calipari’s hatred for Pitino and the Cards as that moment must still haunt him today.
Next up in part 2 is a closer look at the rivalry with Cincinnati and the “Battle for the Keg of Nails”. What does the future hold for Louisville in these rivalries?
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- Cardinals, Tigers and Bearcats, Oh My! Part 2 (atlanticcoastconfidential.com)