This is Why I am Cheering for NKU on Friday
The question has led to a declaration that NKU students wearing UK gear wouldn’t be included in the student lottery (I don’t love saying that out loud, but I do think it’s a jerk move to take that opportunity away from a student who would cheer for a team that’s distributing the tickets), and a meme that I originally chuckled at until I realized that I was one of the people that it was making fun of (I have bought a UK shirt at Walmart).
It’s a question that is expected to confound NKU fans, and with good reason. The Northerner — NKU’s student newspaper — interviewed me (among others) for a story about the conflict many NKU fans feel with the Norse matched up against a team many of us have rooted for forever. I have no such conflict, and I’ll tell you why, but first some history.
Like so many other NKU students and alumni, I am a lifelong University of Kentucky fan. I don’t remember a time I didn’t want the Wildcats to win basketball games (football is a different story. It’s not that I didn’t want them to win, but I didn’t know they existed — TV was different when I was a kid. Currently, I want both of them to win equally.). Kyle Macy, who I later had a chance to work with while hosting Community Trust Bank Sunday Morning Sports Talk, was (and is) one of my all-time favorite athletes (and an even better person). Until NKU played in a pre-season exhibition game at UK in 2004, the thought never occurred to me that I would have to choose one over the other. Until 1985, I never thought I’d care about NKU at all.
When I was looking at colleges prior to graduating from Covington Latin School in 1985, I never considered NKU. I had no intention of going there. Nobody did really. In many ways it was a college of last resort or of apathy. Even Northern Kentuckians who knew all along they would go to college there weren’t excited about that. It was referred to as “no knowledge college,” “the concrete campus” and “advanced high school.” There was a lake in the middle of campus that was the perfect metaphor for NKU. It was just sort of there. It was completely uninteresting. Nobody went near it. Everybody called it Lake Inferior.
Honestly, I didn’t even “look at” colleges. I went to Miami (Ohio) with a friend (nice place), and I took a road trip to a place called Kansas Newman College in Wichita, because they said that I could play soccer there (less nice, but it provides a nice quirk in a few paragraphs). I only applied to two schools — UK and NKU, and I only applied to the latter because I was forced to. There was only one place I wanted to go and it was in Lexington and bathed in blue.
I mentioned Covington Latin School. It plays an important part of the story. It is an advanced college preparatory school. What does that mean? It means you can start high school there as soon as after finishing sixth grade. I waited until I finished seventh grade. The end result is that you are REALLY young when you go to college (although there are many, many benefits to going there). My parents were concerned that I would go to Kentucky, be too immature, be overwhelmed and struggle. They encouraged (insisted) that I go to NKU for a year and then if I did well enough I could transfer. So that’s what I did.I enrolled at NKU in the fall of 1985. I was just barely 17 years old. Knowing I would need to find something — anything — to help me fit in, I went through fraternity rush. I joined Alpha Tau Omega for two reasons — I liked the guys in the chapter and I knew they had a chapter at UK, so I knew I could just move to that one. And then I set about my one year in collegiate purgatory before I could go to the promised land. I attended MAYBE one basketball game. But a funny thing happened.
I made great friends. I learned to love the campus. I got involved in a couple of other organizations. By the time that year in purgatory had ended, I had no intention of leaving. That single decision determined the course of the rest of my life.
I met almost all of the people I still call my best friends. Sure there are some exceptions — people from my old neighborhood or a couple of guys from high school, but the vast majority of them are from NKU.
In my last two years I met a guy named J.D. Campbell who would become the second most influential man in my life after my dad. In a weird coincidence, he was a graduate of Kansas Newman College (see?), where he played baseball. He had been there when I went on my soccer visit. J.D. was the sports information director at NKU. I had gone to NKU hoping to become a sportscaster. My second to last year (my college timeline is complicated), I called NKU’s women’s games for a student television production on local cable. After that season I was asked to come to the sports information office. They had liked my work and wanted me to be part of the radio broadcast team the next year and to work in the sports information office. I loved the idea. I took the job to be on radio. I enjoyed that, but I fell in love with being in the sports information office. I changed my mind about what I wanted to do for a career.
When I graduated from Northern, J.D. helped me get my first job — as a graduate assistant in an athletics department working for Tad Druart, who was one of his Kansas Newman baseball teammates and best friend. He also helped me get my second job…and eventually my third, which was running my own sports information office at Lewis University. I have no idea where I would have ended up or what I would be doing without having met J.D.
Another person I met at NKU was my wife, Michelle. We didn’t start dating until after I had graduated, was living in Texas and had come home for Christmas. When we did start dating, we had been brought together by a group of mutual friends — all of whom we knew through NKU. We have two wonderful sons. I can’t imagine a life without any of the three of them.I think there’s a concern among NKU students and alumni that if you cheer for the Norse on Friday, that you can’t still be a true UK fan. I hope that’s not the case. If UK wins that game (and I honestly think they will), then I will of course cheer for the Wildcats for the rest of the tournament. But when the two teams meet on Friday, one will be a team that I’ve cheered for for a long time. The other will be a place that helped form me, that helped me develop into adulthood and that helped provide in some way or another every good thing that I have in my life to this day. For as much as I love Kentucky athletics, the University of Kentucky did none of that for me.
I understand NKU students and alumni who didn’t form any kind of emotional bond with the school still cheering for UK, and that’s fine. But I did. How do you cheer against that?
And that lake? It’s now called Loch Norse. It is beautifully landscaped and is one of the proud centerpieces of a no longer so concrete campus. And it is the perfect symbol of a proud university that has found itself very much in the same way that it has helped so many students do along the way.