Signs of the times: Cardinals still fighting Cats for supremacy

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – Harry Douglas earned his bachelor’s degree in political science. But the Louisville wide receiver is pretty good at geography too.

So when Douglas saw the large blue University of Kentucky billboards highlighting Wildcat players on Interstate 65 just a couple of fly patterns from Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium over the summer, his first thought was “wow.”

While Douglas is friends with Kentucky wide receiver Keenan Burton, the thought of seeing Burton’s face plastered on a billboard with the phrase “Believe in Loyalty” on it every day was a bit much.

“Whoever put them up there, it’s ridiculous,” Douglas said. “Lexington is in Lexington and Louisville is Louisville.”

Maybe, but in the ever-intensifying battle for the heart of Kentucky, the billboards _ 11 in all scattered throughout the state’s largest city have not gone unnoticed.

“I think a lot of our guys use it as motivation,” said Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm. “You come into summer workouts and you have to drive by the billboards every day. It’s something to get fired up about.”

Despite winning the last four games in the state’s biggest rivalry, which continues on Saturday when the ninth-ranked Cardinals (2-0) visit the Wildcats (2-0), Louisville can’t seem to shake the shadow of the ever-present Big Blue Nation, even on its own campus.

Which is kinda the point, said Kentucky marketing director Jason Schlafer. Coming off the heels of the best football season in over two decades, the university was looking for a way to goose fan interest during the usually quiet summer months.

“We wanted something our fans could point to and be proud of and create some buzz around the program,” he said.

Ask Schlafer if putting two of the billboards so close to Louisville’s campus was a way of letting the Cardinals know who’s boss and he just laughs and points to billboards’ proximity to a couple of other landmarks: Churchill Downs and the city’s airport.

“It’s created some sensitivity,” Schlafer admitted. “We were looking for a way to promote the successes of last year and the optimism surrounding this year. What (the billboards) did was direct the message toward the folks who have made it successful.”

The Wildcats have been diplomatic about the publicity, though Burton, a Louisville native, said he gets a kick out of seeing his face in his hometown wearing the colors of the enemy.

“I love going home and seeing my picture,” he said. “I love the fact I’ve got a billboard in the city of Louisville. … I don’t think a slap in the face to anybody. Kentucky fans in Louisville want Kentucky players to be promoted.”

Though the Cardinals have their own billboards in the city _ some trumpeting the school’s win over Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl last year, others with Brohm and women’s basketball star Angel McCoughtry on them _ don’t expect to see a billboard of basketball coach Rick Pitino outside Rupp Arena anytime soon.

“Slapping a billboard (near the UK campus) doesn’t make sense,” said Louisville national marketing director Kyle Moats. “We’re just not going to put it up there and be retaliatory.”

You could argue that the Cardinals started the billboard battle first. The university created quite a stir when it unveiled a billboard on Interstate 64 just west of Lexington a few years ago. The billboard is emblazoned with the phrase “we’re miles ahead,” a geographically accurate double entendre that may or may not have been a not-so-veiled shot at the Wildcats.

Rather than go head-to-head with the Wildcats across the entire state, the Cardinals have chosen to pick their battles.

“We’ve zeroed in on the western part of the state and places like Cincinnati,” Moats said. “We’ve got a radio affiliate in Lexington now. We’ll probably have more of a presence in (the Lexington area), but we want it to be strategic.”

And the Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich who has orchestrated an athletic Renaissance at Louisville in the decade since he took over joked over the summer that the Wildcats could advertise in Cardinal Stadium if they wanted.

Brohm, who grew up watching the two schools go at it, said while there’s work to be done in the state, there’s little doubt who is tops in his hometown.

“I don’t think we have to battle for number one in our hometown,” he said. “Anytime that you’re at a school that has the city name instead of a state name, you’ve got to expect the state school (will have fans everywhere). We want Louisville fans to be all over this state as well.”

The Kentucky football billboards will start going down at the end of the month, just after the echoes of the latest battle for state bragging rights have died down. If the Cardinals win on Saturday, it means Brohm will be undefeated against Kentucky during his career. Would it be worth a billboard? Brohm said he’d be curious to see the reaction if someone splashed a big red ‘L’ on a sign outside Commonwealth Stadium.

“I don’t know,” Brohm said with a laugh. “Maybe we should start that up.”