Mark Story: UK, Tennessee finally on the verge of real rivalry

Competition improving in top sports after decades

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 17, 2012 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

The March 3, 1958, Lexington Herald sports section contained a story that all but screamed off the microfilm.

It said that of the last 23 meetings between Kentucky and Tennessee in football and men's basketball, "the Wildcats have won 21 times, gained a tie ... and have lost only once. Kentuckians love it, but Tennesseeans are getting tired of seeing the Big Blue carry off all the laurels."

I stumbled across that doing research in 2008. It was fairly stunning reading at a time when UK was mired in what was a two-decade-plus football losing streak to UT.

It was true. During one stretch in the 1950s, Kentucky football went 6-1-1 against the Volunteers — all but one of the wins recorded under head coach Blanton Collier — while Adolph Rupp's men's basketball teams would eventually put together a streak of 20 consecutive victories over the Vols.

Flash forward to 2012.

There is no reason to party like it's 1958 but, in the long history between the sports teams of UK and UT, 2011-12 has already been one of the best years Kentucky has enjoyed in modern times.

The Wildcats have topped the Rocky Toppers this school year in football, women's basketball and men's hoops. This is the first time UK has beaten UT in all three of the most visible sports in the same school year since 1984-85. It is only the third time it has ever done so (1981-82).

Since the mid-1980s, Kentucky and Tennessee have not really been competitive rivals. Tennessee has dominated UK in football and women's basketball. Conversely, Kentucky has mostly had the Big Orange in a squeeze in men's hoops.

What's interesting to ruminate over is whether this season's Kentucky uprising against Tennessee means that a genuine Blue-Orange competitive rivalry is about to break out across all three major sports.

Men's basketball

All-time record: Kentucky 147, Tennessee 66

Last 10 games: UK is 8-2

This year: Tennessee will be in Rupp Arena Jan. 31 looking to avenge its 65-62 defeat to UK on Saturday.

The recent past: Before Bruce Pearl took a mighty fall for NCAA rule breaking and lying about it, he single-handedly put electricity into Kentucky-Tennessee men's hoops matchups. Pearl loved to point out that Tennessee finished ahead of UK in the SEC standings four straight seasons (2005-06 through 2008-09). Once Kentucky hired John Calipari, the personal antipathy between Cal and Pearl galvanized the series.

Looking ahead: New UT head man Cuonzo Martin is a very good coach out of the Gene Keady coaching tree. Yet, historically, the men's basketball coaches who have succeeded at Tennessee — think Ray Mears and Pearl — have been off-the-court showmen. That is not the hard-nosed Martin. Can he recruit at a level that keeps Tennessee a main Southeastern Conference threat to UK?

Women's basketball

All-time record: Tennessee 48, Kentucky 8

Last 10 games: UK is 2-8.

This year: UT will welcome Kentucky to Thompson-Boling Arena Feb. 13 seeking revenge from UK's 61-60 victory Thursday night that snapped the Lady Vols' 36-game SEC winning streak.

The recent past: By finishing second to Tennessee in both the SEC regular-season standings and the conference tournament the last two years, Kentucky has emerged as the league's prime challenger to Pat Summitt & Co..

Looking ahead: So many questions. With Summitt's uncertain future because of early-onset dementia, how much longer will she coach? Whenever Summitt retires, would UT have interest in UK head man Matthew Mitchell? Would he want to follow "the John Wooden of women's basketball" rather than build his own legacy?

The Lady Vols program will endure at a high level after Summitt steps down — but it might not ever be quite the same. The issue at UK is will the next athletics director be as committed to success in women's sports as Mitch Barnhart has been. If UK keeps putting the resources into its program and Mitchell keeps recruiting as he has recently, Kentucky has a chance to be dangerous to the UT dynasty in a post-Summitt era.

Football

All-time record: Tennessee 74, Kentucky 24 with 9 ties

Last 10: UK is 1-9

This year: In one of the signature moments in UK sports history, the Wildcats (with no healthy quarterbacks) ended a 26-year losing streak to UT on Nov. 26 as wide receiver Matt Roark quarterbacked Kentucky to a 10-7 win.

The recent past: In the last six seasons, Tennessee's combined record is 42-35. Kentucky's is 41-36. In 2006, 2007 and 2009, Kentucky had the ball on its final offensive possession of the fourth quarter inside the UT 10-yard line with a chance to win — and failed each time. UK's victory over the Vols this season easily could have been the fourth Kentucky win over the Orange in the last six tries.

Looking ahead: Short term, Derek Dooley and Joker Phillips both enter 2012 facing restive fan bases. UT's Dooley is in the better position to win back the doubters. The Vols return quarterback Tyler Bray, big-play receivers Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter (assuming he's healthy) and most of their offensive line. UK's main problem in 2011 was a lack of explosive playmakers on offense. It's not clear that is going to be substantially better in 2012.

From the long view, Kentucky beat Tennessee in football six times in the 1950s, twice each in the '60s, '70s, and '80s before going zero for the next 26 years. Realistic progress for Kentucky would be getting its program to a place where it beats Tennessee 2-3 times in the bad UK decades and 4-6 times in good ones.

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