Big Blue to Big Ten?

There's more money, and more chance for football success

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 2, 2010 

  • UK's best bet?

    SEC

    ■ From 2000 to 2009, UK is 20-60 against league opponents in football, 12-20 during the Cats recent four-year "resurgence." UK hasn't had a winning league record since 1977.

    ■ Four of the 12 schools have won 17 of the last 20 league titles in football. UK is not one of those four.

    ■ The SEC paid its member schools $11.1 million each in the 2008-09 fiscal year.

  • BIG TEN

    ■ The Big Ten is a football-focused conference, and UK's projected revenue for 2009-10 draws 35.4 percent from football and 21.4 percent from basketball.

    ■ Nine of the 11 schools have won or shared a football league title since 1990.

    ■ The Big Ten paid its members about $22 million each in the 2008-09 fiscal year.

We hold this truth to be self-evident: The Southeastern Conference is the mac-daddy of college sports leagues.

The SEC is on ESPN more than Scott Van Pelt. In recent years, an SEC team winning the football national title has become more certain than death or taxes.

By something darned close to acclamation, the SEC is considered the best all-around college sports conference in these United States.

It would take a hearty degree of fool-hardiness to even suggest that a school riding on the SEC gravy train should consider getting off.

Which is where I come in.

For a singular reason, I think it would behoove the University of Kentucky to at least consider trying to become part of the Big Ten's expected expansion process.

That reason is football.

UK and the overwhelming majority of its fan base may see Kentucky as a basketball school, but even here in Lexington it is football that brings home the financial bacon.

For the 2009-10 fiscal year, UK Athletics projected 35.4 percent of its revenue (some $25.7 million) from football, compared to 21.4 percent of revenue ($15.56 million) from men's hoops.

All national indicators suggest that football is becoming more and more dominant in shaping the landscape of college sports conferences.

So if Kentucky could find a spot in a conference that is a cash machine similar to the $EC but where UK football would have a far more realistic chance to sustain success, shouldn't it at least be worth considering?

Which brings us back to the Big Ten.

Even with the presence of traditional titans Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, history says there is significantly more chance for football upward mobility up north.

Since 1990, nine of the 11 current Big Ten schools — all but Indiana and Minnesota — have won or shared a conference football title.

By comparison, only four schools — Florida (eight titles), Alabama, LSU and Tennessee (three each) — have claimed 17 of the past 20 SEC crowns.

Six of the 12 SEC schools, including UK, have no football championships in that time frame.

It is true that pulling Kentucky football from the SEC would be running away from competition. On the other hand, a famous definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result.

UK has not had a winning football record in SEC games since Jimmy Carter's first year in the White House (1977).

In the decade from 2000-09, Kentucky went 20-60 against Southeastern Conference foes. Even in the past four years — when UK football has taken a clear step forward — the Cats were 12-20 in the league.

Against SEC East foes other than Vanderbilt, UK is 2-38 in the 2000s. Kentucky has a 25-game losing streak against one division foe (Tennessee), a 23-game skid against another (Florida) and a 10-game stretch of defeat against a third (South Carolina).

There becomes a self-perpetuating mental block in such situations. UK has, arguably, had a better team than Tennessee the last four years yet found a way to lose to the Vols each time.

Hitting the reset button in a new league would at least remove such psychological barriers.

The conventional wisdom has always been that UK couldn't afford to leave the $EC because of the big bucks the league throws off.

However, in the 2008-09 fiscal year, the Big Ten paid its member schools some $22 million apiece (with roughly $8 million of those payouts coming from the Big Ten cable TV network).

In the same year, the SEC payout was $11.1 million a school (though that is expected to increase significantly this year thanks to the league's lucrative television deals with ESPN and CBS).

If Kentucky decided it had interest in the Big Ten, would the attraction be mutual?

To be blunt, UK as an academic institution isn't at the level of the existing Big Ten schools. All 11 current Big Ten members are part of the prestigious Association of American Universities, an invitation-only group that bills itself as open only to pre-eminent research institutions.

Athletically, Kentucky's calling card is obviously its storied men's basketball program with its massive fan following.

But would the Big Ten see UK basketball as the winningest all-time program in the sport's history, as a program currently fronted by one of the most dynamic coaches in college sports?

Or would it see Kentucky basketball as an operation with a long history of scandal led by the only coach in NCAA history to preside over two different schools that vacated Final Four appearances?

If he were still at Indiana, I think we know how Bob Knight would vote.

UK's historic ties to the Southeastern Conference and the prestige that comes from being associated with the SEC's luminous present may be too much to leave behind.

Given the financial importance of football to UK and football's increasingly determinant role in the college sports landscape, shouldn't Kentucky at least take a look at a league where the Wildcats' football program would figure to be significantly more successful?

Let me know what you think: Because of football, would a move to the Big Ten, if the interest was reciprocal, make sense for UK?

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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