Louisville’s national championship memories won’t go away. Neither will the shame

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

“What color are the good guys wearing?”

This was the question a father and his two teenage sons were asked approximately one billion times inside a small house on Colonel Drive in Louisville, KY in the late 1980s. Sometimes the good guys wore red, other times they wore white, on the rarest of occasions, they wore black. It was all a little too much to keep track of for a child not even old enough to form solid memories, and so he was forced to lean on the more experienced men in his life.

He did this a lot. Like, all the time. He did it because he loved Louisville basketball more than he loved most things. He didn’t know why. Three decades later, he still doesn’t.

He also doesn’t hear his favorite team described in terms that place it on the “good” end of the sporting morality spectrum all that much anymore.

On the evening of March 28, 2014, just minutes after his team had suffered a soul-crushing Sweet 16 defeat at the hands of arch-rival Kentucky, Rick Pitino declared that the occasion marked “the end of an era.”

Time has only cast more accuracy on those words.

Losing out on a shot at a national title because of a narrow loss to the team that makes defeat sting worse than any other was only part of the reason why that game seemed to take forever for most Louisville fans to get over. Over at Card Chronicle, I tried to put that lingering, hard to define feeling in words a few days afterward.

The third, and I think most painful of the layers, is the “end of an era” talk that has been so prevalent over the past six days. What we know is unpleasant enough. Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Stephan Van Treese and Tim Henderson will never suit up for the Cards again. This wonderful string of continuity that we’ve enjoyed since the opening of the Yum Center at the beginning of the 2010-11 season is about to be broken for the first time, and that’s a little scary. Maybe Trez comes back, maybe Terry Rozier and Anton Gill make enormous leaps in their sophomore seasons, maybe the freshmen are even better than advertised…or maybe none of that happens. Maybe five or six years from now we’re looking back at this moment as the end of the good times. There are plenty of reasons to be very excited about the uncertainty surrounding the future, but there are also plenty of reasons to be a tad unsettled as well.

That feeling of impending doom, like Louisville’s so-called “era of good feelings” had all been too good to be true, proved to be more instinctive than any Cardinal fan would have liked.

First there was the 2014-15 season, a campaign rife with inconsistency and drama, saved only by an improbable run to the Elite Eight. There would be no such deus ex machina a year later, when the stripper party scandal that broke in October wound up costing a likable and overachieving U of L squad the chance to participate in the postseason. That scandal hovered over Louisville throughout 2016-17, always threatening to further infect not only the current season, but any lingering positive feelings from the previous era.

Last September, with the cloud of the first scandal just beginning to dissipate, Louisville was hit with a flash natural disaster.

Turns out the FBI had been investigating college basketball for years, and at the 11th hour of their initial investigation, they’d been able to hook the Cardinals. There was no he said, she said this time around. A U of L assistant coach had been caught on tape talking with an adidas representative about funneling money to a recruit who had wound up signing with Louisville.

Rick Pitino was fired. Athletic director Tom Jurich was fired. A top five recruiting class dissolved into nothingness. For Louisville fans, a new layer of embarrassment was discovered and quickly inhabited.

Things have been an indistinguishable blur in the months that have followed. Former player and assistant coach David Padgett was named interim head coach just two days before the start of practice. He threw together a makeshift coaching staff that includes long-time head coach Trent Johnson and former Duke standout/Ohio State assistant Greg Paulus. Brian Bowen, the recruit at the heart of the issue, was declared ineligible by U of L and wound up transferring to South Carolina.

The season itself has played out in a somewhat predictable fashion. The team struggled more than usual with some lightly-regarded opponents at the beginning of the year. It dropped the games against the strongest teams on its non-conference schedule. It has been up-and-down in ACC play. This is what happens when you have the odd-pairing of a roster with top 20 talent and a 33-year-old first-time head coach trying to do his best to fill the shoes of a Hall of Famer.

Despite the oscillating play and home attendance that has been the lowest of any Louisville season since a 12-19 campaign in 2000-01 (the last season before Pitino came to town), getting lost in the on-court performances of this group of 18-22 year olds has been a welcome respite for a fan base with a more extreme case of scandal fatigue than any other.

Then Tuesday came. A news conference was called, a group of supporters was assembled, and an expectedly harsh dose of finality was dolled out.

In less than an hour, “Louisville” was back to having its name as a stand-alone on ESPN’s bottom line, the fan base was back to championing various stages of grief, and the banner reading “2013 NCAA Champion” was taken down inside the KFC Yum! Center.

Processing the reality of being a fan of the first program to give back a national championship in men’s basketball has proven to be something of an ineffable endeavor.

On one hand — as colleague Alex Kirshner has already put so eloquently — vacating wins is stupid. The Fab Five still took Michigan to two national title games, Reggie Bush and USC were still one of the most dominant college football teams in recent memory, and yes, Louisville still won six straight NCAA tournament games to capture the 2013 national title. We saw these things happen. There’s video. Hell, the NCAA was still selling 2013 Louisville Cardinals national championship memorabilia on its official website hours after ruling that the championship never happened.

Even with all that being so, the 2012-13 Louisville Cardinals becoming the first college basketball team in history to vacate a national championship is thoroughly embarrassing for any person who loved that team and the program it represented. Being the first to be cast in such a dubious light is a stain and an annoyance that is impossible to run from.

Aside from the emotions and feelings of those directly involved with winning the title who had nothing to do with any wrongdoing here (an aspect of all this that’s being too casually swept aside by everyone), that stain and that annoyance are why the ruling matters. Even if you think it shouldn’t. Memories can’t be tainted, but the assumption of prolonged enjoyment can. It has been.

From this day on, any time a Louisville fan mentions the 2013 national championship or wears a piece of clothing honoring the accomplishment, they’ll know what to expect in return. Most of them will be fine with carrying that burden, but they’ll still have to acknowledge it as a burden all the same.

College basketball is an inherited, irresistible vocation in Kentucky. March Madness is an annual state holiday with a varying timeline. People here relate life events to basketball seasons.

Camden learned to walk on the day we beat Florida in the Elite 8.

We watched the second round game against Arizona before we left for my junior prom, so that would have been in 2003.

This is supposed to be about the beautiful game and its unrivaled postseason. It’s supposed to be about on-court victories and defeats for an institution you have cared far too much about for as long as you can remember. The extreme lows are supposed to be tolerable because they’re part of the same phenomenon made the extreme highs possible.

For Louisville fans, the extreme lows since 2015 haven’t been part of the game — at least the game as they had previously known it — and that’s made the ride more tedious than they could have ever imagined.

A new March now sits right around the corner. As the madness creeps towards all of us, Louisville fans find themselves hoping to be a part of the fun, trying to steady themselves from the aftershocks of scandal one, and terrified of the future that scandal two might bring all at the same time. This is the new normal, and things figure to remain this way for at least a little while longer. For the time being, the best any Cardinal fan can hope for is the chance to be a part of the old normal next month.

After that? All you can do is put your head down, march forward, and wait with bated breath for the “good guys” to come back.

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