Why I Stopped Loving UK and Started Pulling for NKU
On March 20, 1994, I latched my hands to the chain-link fence that overlooked I-75 from my family's apartment building in Covington, and wept inconsolably. A neighbor and family friend yelled down from her third-floor balcony, "Are you all right?!"
I turned and looked at her as she gazed at me concerned, taking a drag from her cigarette. I must have shook my head or something to communicate back. It was all I could muster.
I wasn't all right.
In fact, my entire world had come crashing down.
In just the second round of the NCAA Tournament, my beloved Kentucky Wildcats had been upset by Marquette - a university that I would grow to hate over the years for its ability to take down UK in March - and the season was over.
I didn't understand how all these cars could keep driving so fast on the highway, or how anyone could do anything at that moment. Didn't the world know that Travis Ford and Jeff Brassow had just played their last games? One year removed from a Final Four, and this is what we got this season? An end to the tournament after the first weekend?
I cried until I couldn't anymore. How would I show my face at Holmes Junior High on Monday, after weeks of trash-talking with Cincinnati fans?
But then somehow, at 14 years old, I managed to pick up the pieces of my life and move on.
Luckily, there would be brighter days near.
Not long after, my family built a house in South Covington where we watched UK cut down the nets for the first time in my lifetime in 1996, and then in 1997, my brother and I - home alone because our parents, a cop and a dispatcher, worked second shift - had every TV in the house on and raced from room to room because we couldn't sit still as UK was finally downed in overtime by Arizona in the title game. 1998, though, brought yet another title for UK.
These were great days to be a Wildcat fan, especially when your younger brother is a die-hard Louisville fan (because we had the fortune of being born in the Ville, and living there until 1992).
The next year, I started college at Northern Kentucky University - a school whose basketball team I enthusiastically watched in back-to-back title games in '96 and '97 - where I would study radio and television, and French, with the dream of being the next great personality on the Travel Channel. Life at NKU was different than what a lot of my fellow Scott High grads were experiencing at places like UK, or Eastern Kentucky, or fancier places like Duke or Loyola in New Orleans. I admired, and was maybe even a little - or a lot - jealous of the campus life and new friends that they were making and sights that they were seeing. For the first semester, I drove from home in South Covington just two exits down I-275 to what some derisively called "the concrete jungle", or worse, "No Knowledge College".
But, I'm a guy who just can't help himself when it comes to being proud and competitive. It was our family's move to South Covington that made me love Covington in general, because some of our neighbors often suggested that it would be best to use Taylor Mill as their address. Now, at NKU, I wasn't going to allow anyone to speak to me like I was less than.
One thing was clear: At NKU, students have to work a little harder, for basic things like state funding, and for experiential things like a campus lifestyle or school spirit. I was determined to do this. I moved on campus, joined a fraternity (Tau Kappa Epsilon), and was added to the forensics team (speech and debate) midway through my freshman year. Representing NKU in competition around the country against the likes of Division I athletics programs like Texas, Ohio State, Miami (Oh.), Bradley, and our in-state standard-bearer, the dreaded Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky, helped my teammates and me gain a sense of pride in our school.
And that wasn't easy.
The NKU forensics team was woefully underfunded. In my four years there, we had three different coaches, and in my first couple years, we had to ride around in the most unattractive faded yellow or gold or snot-colored van you could imagine. It had rust on it and made an awful noise when it started. At one state tournament (in forensics, state tournaments are like conference tournaments in basketball), we were dropped off in front of all the other teams and we were humiliated getting out of this embarrassing van.
But maybe that was the moment things changed for us, and for me.
Yeah, Murray State had a nicer van, but we could beat them in dramatic duo interpretation. Maybe Asbury's team looked more well put-together in their tidy suits than our raggedy thrift store finds, but we could take them down in impromptu speaking. And maybe Western Kentucky - with its massive team and staff and resources - could knock us out in every round of competition, but we could show up to compete, proudly representing Northern Kentucky University, regardless of the condition of our van.
It wasn't basketball, but we were sure as hell Norse.
By my third year, our team was rock solid good, and the university let us use the newer vans and we went to our first national tournament in school history. The next year, we hosted state, and I left campus that weekend with both arms full of trophies - including the coveted Harland Hamm Award (look it up).
We went to nationals again, for the second year in a row.
I loved that. I loved representing the black and gold, the Norse, in battle.
But each year, when the NCAA Tournament rolled around, I was bleeding blue again, loving the Kentucky Wildcats. I felt like that was fair, since NKU was Division II, and didn't compete against UK. That changed, though, when NKU transitioned to the big leagues, and I knew exactly what I had to do.
It wasn't easy. I let it drag out a little. "NKU isn't eligible for the post-season yet, so I can still cheer for UK," I told myself as I shouted myself hoarse during the Wildcats' improbable run to the finals in 2014.
In my defense, earlier that season, Northern Kentucky made a trip to Rupp to face the Wildcats in a regular season match-up. Kentucky was ranked #1 at the time, but in true Covington-esque defiance, I wasn't afraid to prance into that fabled arena wearing a gold shirt. It was a lonely afternoon, surrounded by 22,999 other people who were all decked out in blue.
NKU went down by 30 that day.
And now, here we are. Another shot. Northern Kentucky versus Kentucky. The biggest stage ever for the Norse. A Friday night match-up in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, broadcast on CBS with some of the most famous announcers in the game calling the shots.
I won't be in a gold shirt, not because I'm not a total homer for the Norse - I am, but because I'll be on press row, and there's a sort of requirement about not making a spectacle, or any noise. That was really hard in Detroit where the Norse cut down the nets mere feet away from me where I swallowed my screams as my fingers swiftly typed updates and enthusiasm into Twitter and Facebook for The River City News.
For the past two seasons, I've been all in for the Norse. I honestly couldn't name more than a couple UK players, but I know and celebrate Drew McDonald, Lavone Holland, Carson Williams, Coach John Brannen, Cole Murray, and those up and down the bench, these guys who wear the name Northern Kentucky into battle for us. They have heart, and they face steep odds and they are warriors even as underdogs, and man, that's just inspirational.
I love this team and I love this university and the feeling is so strong that maybe I was wrong all those years. Maybe my blood wasn't blue. Maybe it was black and gold all along.
I remember in the early 2000s, going to basketball games at Regents Hall, where the Norse played before the massive - and spectacular - BB&T Arena was built, and sitting with fraternity brothers (say what you will about Greeks at NKU, but you can always count on them to show up at stuff), and lamenting seeing teams like Kentucky Wesleyan bring in more fans than we had at our own home games.
I hope those days are now as far away as they feel. I hope that what this NKU team has accomplished this year inspires a region to rally behind itself, to look at home for a way to win, and to know that we can compete with anyone.
These guys' jerseys say Northern Kentucky.
That's your home. That's your team.
That's my team.
This game is for all of us who were ridiculed for choosing NKU as our college, and for all of us who fight for equal funding for our region in Frankfort, and for all of us who believe that Northern Kentucky matters, and that Northern Kentucky can and should win - at anything.
This is for the eight dedicated kids who climbed out of a rusty old van with a hastily black-lettered "Northern Kentucky University" on its side, to represent the Norse in forensics combat, amid derision from opponents who would soon learn that the van doesn't define the man!
And this is for a team that has inspired a region to Norse Up, once and for all.
And for a sad 14-year old boy who grew up to know that he wasn't crying because Kentucky lost to Marquette. He was crying because he hadn't found his team yet.
Well, he has his team now.
And always will.
-Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
Photos: Young Michael Monks in a 4th grade school picture, and older Michael Monks on his way to Detroit (RCN)