Mike Rutherford is a busy dude. He runs SB Nation’s Louisville blog Card Chronicle. He is also the college basketball editor for all of SB Nation. He’s one of my favorite college basketball guests and a guy that I send a lot of texts and interview requests to every February through April.
Since 2015 Mike has also been one half of Ramsey and Rutherford, an afternoon drive show in Louisville. Until earlier this year the show aired on Union Broadcasting’s 93.9 the Ville. In April, the pair temporarily said farewell before resurfacing last month on iHeartRadio’s 790 KRD.
Mike has had a front row seat to one of the strangest periods any college basketball program has ever experienced. Who would ever have guessed that the Katina Powell prostitution scandal would become “the other one” in Louisville basketball lore? On Halloween morning, I called him to talk about changing stations, how he balances all of his roles, and what it has been like to cover sports in Louisville over the past three years.
DR: In doing research for this interview I came across the open letter you penned for Card Chronicle when your show left 93.9 the Ville. Take me through the thought process that enabled you guys to press the pause button on Ramsey & Rutherford.
MR: It was a tough call. I like a lot of people at The Ville and ESPN Louisville. It was the first place I got to be on the radio and have it be a full-time gig. John Ramsey, my co-host, fought really hard to get me that job in 2014 and I think I became full-time in 2015. Anyway, he was unhappy with some of the stuff that was going on there. I didn’t necessarily agree with a lot of his complaints, but I respect him. He saw an opportunity to make a move to another station and it all happened very quickly. I didn’t really know what to do, because it was kind of “you gotta make this decision now and what it came down to was the guy that got me a job, wanted me to go with him to a new station, and so I owed him at least that much.
DR: It is a whole new world going from a place that is purely locally owned like The Ville and ESPN Louisville to iHeartRadio. What sort of changes have you had to get used to?
MR: It’s certainly way more corporate. You actually have to log if you want to take off. At the old station you just kinda didn’t show up. There was no one keeping count of your vacation days. Our new studio is much bigger. We meet people from different branches. They’re keeping track of our remotes and we’re getting paid for that, which is really nice. I really liked the “we’re doing this on the fly” nature of ESPN Louisville, where there wasn’t a hub of “this is where this gets done” and “that is where that happens.” But, it is really nice to be with a company that has been doing this at a really high level for a very long time.
DR: How much did you and John Ramsey talk between signing off on The Ville and signing back on on 790 KRD?
MR: We talked a decent amount. John always wants to hang out with me, which I love. We went to a couple of concerts together. Our wives get along great, so they like hanging out together too. Everything we did was social stuff. It wasn’t a whole lot of “are you paying attention to this?” or “have you called that person?”.
DR: So the day the Hoopocalypse (the pay-for-play college basketball scandal that has turned into an FBI investigation) breaks, you guys were still a week or so away from coming back on air, right?
MR: It was just perfect timing. We were supposed to do a reintroduction party for advertisers and Tom Jurich (Louisville’s recently fired athletic director) and Rick Pitino (Louisville’s recently fired head basketball coach) were going to be there. John was really excited about it and then the story breaks and I was like “so, I guess party’s off, right?” And John was like “yeah, party’s off.”
DR: So let’s talk about that, because over the last three years, has there been any time to come up for breath between scandals at Louisville?
MR: No. Just when you start to think you’re getting back to some normalcy of talking about wins and losses, something else insane happens and throws everything into turmoil again. That week when the FBI stuff broke, I was starting to think Pitino’s got the five-game suspension. There’s the NCAA appeal, but you can guess how that was going to go. At least we know how the whole thing was going to shake out and we can now get back to focusing on basketball. Then that happens and you’re back in total turmoil.
People forget that this whole thing – not this FBI thing, but Louisville’s string of scandals, kind of got started with the Chris Jones deal, where he was accused of sexual assault. He was ultimately vindicated, but ended up getting kicked off the team for missing a meeting or something like that. Then a few months later there was the Katina Powell stuff, which had a new lead every other week. Now there’s this.
With this investigation and the fall out, it has been exhausting. Tom Jurich is out. Rick Pitino is out. It’s been something every single day. It’s amazing how normal it felt last night just sitting and watching an exhibition game and I’m not listening to board meetings and taking minutes, waiting for someone to call someone else an a-hole.
DR: One of the weird things that has happened in the middle of all of this is the rise of Lamar Jackson (Louisville’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback). It’s not a scandal certainly, but he brings a whole new level of attention than Louisville football is used to. That had to add to the madness somewhat, especially for your role at Card Chronicle.
MR: In a weird way, it almost became another negative. Not Lamar himself, but there is this overwhelming sense that here was a generational talent that we just kind of lucked into. He’s the type of kid that doesn’t usually come to play for Louisville football, and he’s been wasted. They aren’t going to win double-digit games with Lamar Jackson. That is remarkable!
We’re going to watch his highlights and be blown away by them. We’ll look at the stats and be blown away by them. Then you’ll look at the record and be blown away by them in a terrible way. In a strange fashion, Lamar’s greatness will add to the frustration of being a Louisville fan during this time period. What did we get out of it? One 43-point win over Florida State is the lone on-field result you take away from the Lamar Jackson era. Fans are furious about that! We hear about it after every loss on the radio show.
DR: So starting with the Chris Jones scandal up to now, do you feel pressure to beat the ESPN’s and USA Today’s of the world to the newest, biggest details of this story given that you live in the town and are part of the Louisville community?
MR: I’m not really trying to beat anybody. I mean, I am rarely reporting stuff at all. People come to the website or my radio show for reaction. John was really well connected to Tom Jurich, the former athletic director. People around here knew that. He never tried to hide it. So, he’d get news, but it could be counterproductive, because people knew exactly where it came from and then assumed the story was being spun. In those cases, being first to a story didn’t really help us.
In terms of competition though, no. If the goal is to get more readers or listeners, being first isn’t the best way to do that. My goal is to be the most informative or most entertaining.
DR: I’m glad you brought up John’s relationship with the athletic department, because it goes to my next question. How much do you feel like you have to balance access with being able to do the show or write the kind of pieces you want?
MR: Oh, a lot! John is a really talented guy, but sometimes he only wanted to tell one side of the story. He was always willing to listen to the other side when people called in or brought it up, but he didn’t want to project it himself, and Tom was his friend. If my best friend worked for AT&T and I hosted a tech radio show, I probably wouldn’t want to come on singing the praises of Google Fiber, right? But I was always really careful with what I did, because I never wanted to cast the show as only giving you half the truth every single day. I wanted to balance him out, because I know people are aware of his relationships. It’s been a daily thing and it still is.
DR: Since teaming up with John, and transitioning from being a writing talent to someone who also hosts a radio show, what have you discovered needs to change in terms of your preparation and the goals of what you’re trying to put out?
MR: The prep is still something I’m trying to get a handle on, because I’ve got Card Chronicle, I’m the college basketball editor for SB Nation, and I’ve got the radio gig. At some point something has to be sacrificed to a certain extent. Typically I go with Card Chronicle, because I get paid full time for the other stuff.
Each is its own thing. One job wants me to kind of be a Louisville homer. One wants me to be an entertaining Louisville guy. And then one demands that I am totally objective. Covering the Powell story especially was really hard. The radio show wants all the details and they want you to talk about what this news means for the program. Card Chronicle is supposed to be a Louisville fan that says “hey we can make fun of it and we’ll get through it,” you know? I mean, how “woe is me” are we supposed to get here? Then there’s the objective side for SB Nation that is all about “this is going on at Louisville, one of the ten most successful programs of all time, so what does it mean for college basketball?”.
It kinda makes you realize that there is room for the same voice to touch all three. Media is changing. People aren’t trying to hide their fandom as much anymore. You’ve got Scott Van Pelt on the 11:00 Sportscenter every night talking about Maryland. So, I don’t think people care so much as long as you’re being fair.
DR: So what is the makeup of fandom in Louisville? Since it is the city’s university, is the town overwhelmingly red and white or is it more evident that it is the biggest city in the state of Kentucky and you more often see Kentucky fans that want to revel in the misfortunes of Louisville?
MR: Yeah, I mean there are more Kentucky fans in Jefferson County than anywhere else in the state, and they’ll tell you that the town is 50/50, but its not. It’s closer to 65/35 or 60/40.
DR: 60/40 Louisville?
MR: Yeah. The only big, comprehensive study done on this was about ten years ago, but it was related to football. Kentucky fans are Alabama fans or Ohio State fans or whatever when it comes to football. The results of that one were 61% Louisville, 28% Kentucky and the remainder just didn’t care. So it’s more than 50/50, but they have a huge influence. You grow up with Kentucky fans. You work with them. You’re around UK fans everyday. It’s why UK fans will tell you the games in Lexington are more contentious – football or basketball, because you’ve got this population of Kentucky fans that have never had to interact with Louisville fans and they’re just going to let you have it while you’re there.
DR: I’ve never thought about it from that angle before. I wonder if Auburn fans would say that about going to Tuscaloosa. Or really any rivalry that is the town against the big state university.
MR: Yeah, there’s a lot at play there. You’ve got Louisville fans vs. Kentucky fans, but there is also the state of Kentucky vs. the city of Louisville or country UK fans vs. city Louisville fans. It opens up a window that can get pretty ugly.
DR: So in learning your audience, what have you discovered their expectation is? How much of the show is going to be about Louisville basketball or football…or hell, baseball. They’ve had a really good baseball team recently.
MR: No doubt. I’d say about 75-80%. I mean it’s supposed to be a Louisville show, but we get off topic a little bit. You have to, unless there is a prostitution scandal or some other national news thing going on, but we take a lot of calls too. They drive the show sometimes and typically they go to football or basketball.
John and I are so different. The people that follow me on Card Chronicle expect me to be funny and make jokes. It’s why they tune in. John’s a long time radio guy. He’s a lot older than me and knows how to talk to that audience.
DR: So given the way the town lines up behind both Louisville and Kentucky, do you think Louisville could ever support pro sports?
MR: Oh yeah. A publication in town named me one of the 20 sports business people to know. So they did this cool round table discussion with all of us and one of the things that came up is getting a pro team here and how that could keep Louisville going and keep pace with cities like Indianapolis and Nashville. These are cities that Louisville would compare itself to about 30 years ago, but it hasn’t really kept up in part because it doesn’t have a pro sports franchise.
But it also came up that a pro team could be a unifying deal for this rivalry. And it’s amazing how much the rivalry came up. J. Bruce Miller is a prominent attorney in town who used to work in government and he said that in the 70’s and 80’s they would go to the capital in Frankfort and they could get whatever they wanted. They could get anything done. Now you can’t go to Frankfort from the city of Louisville and get anything done because no one wants to work with you because they don’t want to be on the wrong side of this rivalry.
He blamed the media, which was great, because I was the only media member. But you blame the rivalry. Hell, if they do bring an NBA team here, there’s a vocal contingent that doesn’t want them to play in the Yum Center because it’s associated with U of L basketball. We have an NBA ready arena and they talk about renovating Freedom Hall if it ever does come here.
I think we’d do well with a pro sports franchise and it would do great for the entire city.
DR: So if a league were to come to Louisville, the best fit would be the NBA?
MR: The NBA or MLS. There is a USL team here. I think it’s their third season and they’re well-supported. Just a couple of nights ago, the city approved a plan for a 10,000 seat stadium for the team in the Butchertown neighborhood and then there will be a big push for an MLS team. It will be tough though because they would be competing with Cincinnati and Columbus, and the MLS would probably go to Austin first, but there’s hope. But in the next decade if anything moves to town it’ll likely be the NBA or MLS.