LOUISVILLE, Kentucky -- Something wasn’t right.
Just eight minutes before Friday’s Louisville-Kentucky rivalry game began, Rupp Arena -- the legendary college basketball venue -- featured patches of empty seats throughout the lower bowl of a place that sells out for meaningless Midnight Madness festivities.
Perhaps the 4:30 p.m. ET kickoff in Kentucky football’s Music City Bowl matchup against Northwestern in Nashville, Tennessee -- 3 hours, 30 minutes after the rivalry game’s tipoff -- inspired some fans to stay home and watch both games on TV while avoiding postgame traffic. Or, as those who’ve followed Kentucky basketball this year suggested, an inconsistent product -- Kentucky surrendered 12 3-pointers in a neutral-site loss to UCLA on Saturday -- led to the sub-capacity crowd.
But another possible culprit seeped into conversations throughout the building Friday afternoon: the absence of Rick Pitino, who was fired by Louisville in September because of his alleged role in a $100,000 pay-for-play scheme involving Adidas and the family of five-star recruit Brian Bowen.
John Calipari claimed he never thought about Pitino’s absence as he coached his team to a 90-61 victory over Louisville on Friday.
“I’m gonna be honest with you,” Calipari said, “I was so worried about the game, it never entered my mind.”
Without Pitino, however, Friday’s game never amassed the energy past rivalry matchups have generated because Louisville-Kentucky isn’t the same without him.
Rupp Arena always buzzes. The fans never stop. The building is defined by a constant hum, a vibration that starts long before tipoff and spills into the concourse after the game.
But the venue lacked that vibe Friday.
During an early timeout, a few fans cheered when a man won a $250 gift certificate and a yearlong membership to a local gun range after he successfully launched three T-shirts into specific sections via potato gun.
Later, an emcee struggled to draw participants for various promotions on the giant video screen. At times, he yelled, “We-Are-U-K!” alone. That never happened with Pitino at Louisville.
And that’s why Pitino deserves the blame for Friday’s simmered mood. This is his fault. His alleged actions altered the atmosphere and the flavor of a storied rivalry that usually enriches college basketball.
He also left David Padgett, who accepted an elite Power 5 gig after a handful of years as an assistant, in a difficult spot.
“Well if you ask me that question right now, I’d say it’s not that much fun,” Padgett said in response to a question about the difference between acting as an assistant and the head coach in a Louisville-Kentucky matchup. “I’ve been a part of this as a player, as an assistant, obviously as a head coach. It’s an intense rivalry. But at the end of the day, it’s just a basketball game, and today we just played against a team that was much better than us.”
It was so much more than a game when Pitino was involved.
Pitino’s presence created the perfect concoction of controversy and excitement during his tenure. After Calipari arrived in 2009, Louisville-Kentucky regained its place as one of the most substantive rivalries in sports.
In the first Louisville-Kentucky game under Calipari and Pitino, opposing players trash-talked one another in the tunnel prior to tipoff.
“It was intense," DeMarcus Cousins, who was hit with a technical foul after he threw a forearm at a Louisville player, said after Calipari’s first rivalry game in 2010. “I was just going for the ball. They tried to get physical and we got physical with them. They tried to rough us up."
More trash talk and scraps would follow over the years.
And Pitino once denied giving the middle finger to a fan after a loss to Kentucky in 2015.
His connection to both programs -- Pitino won a national title at Kentucky in 1996 -- centralized the hatred that’s defined the rivalry between a pair of programs just 70 miles apart in a state without an NBA team.
Calipari left Memphis to lead Kentucky back to national prominence. He won a national title in 2012 and made the Wildcats the greatest force in the one-and-done era.
But Pitino was always the target, the one Calipari had to beat to earn more street cred from his new fan base. His Wildcats finished 8-2 against Pitino’s Cardinals. And to those crazed Kentucky supporters, every win over Pitino offered its own unique sensation and validation.
As Calipari stalked the sideline Friday, he screamed and begged his players to listen. He’s a theatrical masterpiece, an outspoken coach who talks with his hands and turns every teachable moment into a meme.
For years, Pitino would counter him on the other end of the floor. He’d sometimes stand in one spot in front of his bench and shake his head before he’d erupt into a tirade and wrinkle his $5,000 Italian suits.
Pitino and Calipari would march in unison, as their egos extended well beyond the coaches’ boxes. You watched the game but you kept an eye on them, too. You had to.
They were two demonstrative, powerful and polarizing rivals who made Louisville-Kentucky the most compelling nonconference game of the season.
In his first rivalry game Friday, Padgett stomped up and down the sideline and urged his players to execute. He held his hands behind his back and leaned forward multiple times. Pitino did that, too.
By the end of the game, however, Calipari had schooled a disjointed Louisville team that’s made preseason Final Four projections seem fraudulent.
But what did he really get out of it? He beat Padgett, a thirtysomething first-year coach whom school officials handed the program after firing Pitino and suspending multiple assistants. He was capable but more designated survivor than heir.
Calipari’s true antagonist was missing.
Pitino didn’t deserve to be there, not after Louisville was implicated in NCAA and federal investigations during his tenure. He should not receive any sympathy.
Despite that reality, however, the rivalry he helped rebuild has clearly lost its pizzazz without him.
And much like Louisville, it might never be the same.