John Clay: A great 24 hours for sports in the commonwealth

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 28, 2012 

Mitch Barnhart

It was quite the 24 hours for the sports-obsessed fans of our little commonwealth.

Before Tuesday, two compelling questions faced collegiate sports in Kentucky.

Question No. 1: Could the University of Kentucky find a viable coach who could get a disappointed and disgruntled fan base excited about football again?

Question No. 2: Could the University of Louisville find its way out of the crumbling Big East and into a bigger, better more secure athletic conference?

Problems solved.

Tuesday afternoon, UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart announced that he had hired Mark Stoops, the Florida State defensive coordinator, with a famous coaching name and a strong pedigree suggesting he has all the tools to be a successful head coach.

Then Wednesday morning, nearly out of the blue, the ACC voted to send Louisville a lifeboat and invite the Cardinals into the same conference where Duke and North Carolina (among others) excel at basketball and where Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech (among others, especially one other) excel at football.

The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home.

If you are a collegiate sports fan in this commonwealth, it was a whirlwind and wonderful 24 hours, one of those rare occurrences when the fan bases of the state's two largest institutions of higher learning were both thrilled at the same time.

An unscientific poll conducted on my blog had the Stoops hire registering a 94 percent approval rating before lunch on Wednesday. The count was 1,202 in favor, 76 against.

Meanwhile, up the road by the river, there appeared to be a new Thunder over Louisville, such was the excitement (and relief) concerning the surprise announcement that Mike Krzyzewski will make regular visits to the Yum Center and that Louisville can now play Notre Dame at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.

And in the spirit of bipartisanship, on the brink of the fiscal cliff, there is plenty for both sides to like about the good news at the other location.

A strong football program at Louisville helps football in a state where basketball is king. That shouldn't hurt UK; it should help UK. The more high school athletes who choose to play football, the deeper the talent pool.

The competition also pushes the two programs. You think Steve Kragthorpe's 0-3 record against UK had something to do with his pink slip at U of L? You think Joker Phillips' two straight losses to Louisville played a role in his departure at UK?

The one fly in the ointment would be if Louisville uses its expanded, tougher conference football schedule as an excuse to opt out of its annual non-conference game with UK. I don't see that happening. The series has always appeared more important to U of L, which has kept the tilt as its season opener, while Kentucky has moved the date to later in September when the game is played in Lexington.

Likewise, the state should benefit from an infusion of ACC basketball. Tobacco Road meets Friends of Coal. There will continue to be a plethora of marquee games in both Lexington and Louisville, and if you take into account the job Tom Crean is doing at Indiana, the area has truly returned to being the Golden Triangle of college basketball. What could be bad about that?

This week's moves also shine a positive light on the state's top two athletics directors. Tom Jurich has done a terrific job building U of L's athletics program, but there were questions about whether even he had enough clout to overcome the school's geographic shortcomings in the quickly changing world of conference realignment. Meanwhile, Barnhart had served as a Big Blue punching bag, many doubting his capacity to find a dynamic figure who could restore optimism for the football faithful.

In a span of 24 hours, both came through with flying colors, and the state's sports fans are the better for it.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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