Hickey: Indiana and Kentucky show what happens when adults act like adults
The past couple years of decisions in college athletics have made 1 thing perfectly obvious: Nobody gives a damn what the real fans think.
Every bag thrown every conference’s direction in realignment is in hopes of marketing to casuals expected to find UCLA vs. Ohio State more appealing than the Bruins playing anyone in the Pacific Time Zone.
Thus, it is deeply encouraging to see there are still athletic directors out there who actually get it. People like Indiana AD Scott Dolson and Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart, who finally ended a ridiculous 12-year gap between regular-season basketball meetings by announcing Tuesday a 4-game renewal of the series.
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That gap will grow to 14 years by the time the Hoosiers and Wildcats finally get back together on Dec. 20, 2025 — enough time for a UK or IU fan to have been born and started high school without seeing this classic rivalry played out as it should.
It never should have reached this point. As last spring’s Lexington baseball regional displayed, the disdain these programs and fan bases have for each other is healthy and mutual. And baseball disdain doesn’t hold a candle to the hatred they share on a basketball court.
There is primarily 1 person to blame for it reaching that stage: Kentucky coach John Calipari.
Cal has refused to play Indiana in a home-and-home setting ever since Christian Watford’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer to down the top-ranked Wildcats on Dec. 10, 2011.
If anything, that moment should have reignited a rivalry that tilted entirely in Kentucky’s favor in the 21st century. This was pretty definitive proof why natural rivalries make college sports tick.
Instead, Coach Cal took his ball and went home, never to cross the Ohio River for another game.
A series that was played annually since 1969 was left to rot unless the NCAA Tournament committee found a way to weave it into the brackets. That happened in 2012 and 2016, but never since — mostly thanks to Indiana’s struggles upholding their end in actually reaching the tourney.
Calipari disguised that tail-between-the-legs weakness as strength, insisting that the Cats were willing to play the Hoosiers away from Lexington just as long as it was done at a neutral site.
His stated logic was that he wanted Kentucky’s nonconference schedule to prepare it for the postseason. That means playing at neutral sites. Better still, at domes that prepare you for the Final Four — like Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium.
All that preparation hasn’t worked too well lately. Kentucky hasn’t reached the Final Four since 2015. And perhaps that’s given Cal’s boss a little more sway in how things will be done around here.
The adults have taken over because Cal is no longer the strongest person in the room.
If he still was, Mark Stoops never would have had the nerve to start a public feud with a sitting basketball coach at the University of Kentucky. In previous years that Stoops would have been signing his own unemployment warrant. By 2022, that was no longer the case.
Nonetheless, Calipari is the biggest winner in this transaction outside of the fans themselves. Kentucky certainly won at the negotiating table.
The series doesn’t come back to Bloomington until the 2028-29 season. That means there’s a pretty good chance Calipari will never set foot on Assembly Hall’s sidelines.
Due to the aforementioned Final Four drought, there’s been plenty of recent grumbling about Cal’s coaching in the Commonwealth. If it extends another 5 years, you better believe changes are coming.
And then there’s the fact he’ll be 69 years old by the time that game comes around. Even if Kentucky comes back around to meet the expectations of Big Blue Nation the rest of this decade, Cal may well decide to hang up the whistle of his own volition.
As we’ve been seeing with the retirements of many of the sport’s most successful coaches in the NIL era, college basketball is no longer an old man’s game.
But Calipari probably will get another crack at Indiana.
Before that trip to Bloomington, Kentucky gets to play the Hoosiers twice at Rupp Arena. And sandwiched between those meetings is a game at the venue Cal wanted all along: Lucas Oil Stadium.
Without question, this is a win for Kentucky. But that doesn’t make it a loss for Indiana. Dolson gave up a lot, but he got enough of a return to justify the move.
Indiana and Kentucky are playing again. Neither the Hoosiers nor Wildcats are the biggest winners in this scenario. The fans are.
And that’s a rare victory for the health of college sports’ very soul.
Turns out you can still give real fans what they want. And guess what? They’ll even pay money to see it.