In the state of Kentucky, the game of basketball is much more than five athletes in matching uniforms tossing a ball toward a hoop. It’s the sort of thing that dictates wardrobe choices, political affiliations, and the name of your first born. Fans in Lexington are quick to claim their Wildcats as the best in the Bluegrass State, but there are legions of Louisville Cardinals fans who would gladly argue otherwise.
The men’s basketball program has more than 100 years of competitive play under its belt, but perhaps the most impressive statistic associated with the Cardinals is that, from 1944 to 2001, there have been just four head coaches. Bernard “Peck” Hickman started the charge when he took over the bench in 1944 and guided the school to a record of 16 wins and three losses. By the 1950-51 season, Louisville would make its first NCAA tournament and would go on to appear in the postseason five more times before “Peck” stepped down in 1967. Hickman’s final years with the school would be bittersweet, as it was just the beginning of big man Wes Unseld’s reign in the NCAA. A two-time All-American, Unseld would score over 1,600 points and grab more than 1,500 rebounds in his three-year career before moving on to greatness in the NBA. In 1988, Unseld became the first Louisville basketball player to be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame.
Following the sudden resignation of John Dromo in 1971, former UCLA assistant Denny Crum was tapped to take over the program. Almost immediately, “Cool Hand Luke” got to work on building a dynasty. While they would appear in the Final Four in both ‘72 and ‘75, it was in the ‘80s that Louisville made the jump from very good to truly great. Over the course of the decade, the Cardinals would appear in eight NCAA tournaments, advance to the Sweet Sixteen seven times, and reach the Final Four on four separate occasions. Most importantly, the school would capture national championships in 1980 and ‘86.
The ‘80s would also see the revival of a heated rivalry with the cross-state Kentucky Wildcats. At the 1983 NCAA Tournament, the two schools squared off for the first time in 24 years, with the Red and White handily winning the matchup. In 1995, an unranked Cardinals squad would shock a heavily favored Kentucky team. Louisville would land another devastating blow in 2001, when former Wildcats boss Rick Pitino agreed to become the next head coach of the Cardinals.
It’s important to point out that excellence in Louisville hasn’t been solely limited to the hardwood. Football, volleyball, softball, and baseball have all enjoyed success in their own right, and in 2011-12, eight Cardinals teams qualified for postseason play. The university’s fight song includes the line, “Fight on you Cardinals and prove to them, that we deserve our fame,” and with such a stacked trophy case, it’s hard to imagine a time when anyone would discount this school in the first place.