Mark Story: Is it now better to be a U of L fan than a UK backer?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 6, 2012 

It is possible we have just witnessed the greatest eight days in University of Louisville sports history.

Nov. 28. The Atlantic Coast Conference throws U of L a lifeline off the sinking ship that is the Big East by inviting the Cardinals to join the ACC starting in 2014.

Nov. 29. The U of L football team earns a berth in a BCS bowl (the Sugar Bowl) by rallying past host Rutgers behind an inspirational performance from injured, star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

Dec. 5. Cardinals football coach Charlie Strong says no to what was apparently a mega-bucks offer from Tennessee of the freakin' Southeastern Conference to stay at U of L.

As UK sports-centric as our state has always been, it is possible that Louisville in the ACC is — with one big caveat — positioned to provide its fan base with a more rewarding experience than Kentucky in the SEC produces for UK backers.

In football, U of L joins a league in which there are enough high-caliber programs — Florida State, Clemson, Virginia Tech and, if it ever gets its house in order, Miami — to provide attractive opponents. But there are not so many schools with clearly superior football resources to Louisville that the Cards do not have a realistic chance to win.

At UK, Mark Stoops seems like a good hire as head football coach. If Stoops can lure ex-UK wide receiver and current Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown to Lexington to run the offense, that combination would be a far better outcome, frankly, than any Kentucky fan could have realistically expected when Joker Phillips was fired.

What Stoops has to overcome is grim history. The 80th season of SEC football is now in the books. In that time, Kentucky has had twice as many winless league seasons (14, counting 2012) as it has had winning SEC records (seven, none since 1977).

In men's basketball, UK is now what it has, more or less, always been: The mac daddy of the Southeastern Conference.

Meaning no disrespect to what Billy Donovan has built at Florida or to the solid Missouri program that just entered the league, it's hard to see anything short of some kind of a scandal changing that in the near term.

One of the fascinating things about the Kentucky basketball experience is that the UK fan base has always seemed to judge the standing of its program more on how the Cats fare in marquee non-league games against other basketball titans such as North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Indiana and U of L than against SEC foes.

Conversely, U of L is not going to dominate ACC basketball in the way UK controls the SEC. But season ticket holders in the KFC Yum Center are going to get regular league matchups with North Carolina, Duke and Syracuse. That should make league basketball matter for U of L fans in a way that most SEC games never really have for UK.

Now, the giant caveat in all this is whether the ACC, having already lost Maryland to the Big Ten, is stable moving forward.

One hears rumblings of Florida State and Clemson casting longing glances at the Big 12. Rumors fly that the Big Ten has eyes for North Carolina, Georgia Tech and/or Virginia. Some speculate the SEC covets Virginia Tech and North Carolina State, or maybe even North Carolina and Duke.

Meanwhile, in the ever shifting plate tectonics of conference alignments, the SEC is the Rock of Gibraltar.

Over the past school year, the SEC payout per school ($20.1 million) was above the ACC number ($17 million).

Going forward, the $EC should be viewed as an absolute growth "stock." The league is about to roll out its own version of the lucrative Big Ten Network.

In tandem with the Big 12, the SEC owns the new bowl that will pit the champions (or the top teams in each conference not in the coming four-team playoff) of each league. Thanks to the addition of A&M and Mizzou, the SEC is renegotiating its existing TV contracts with CBS and ESPN.

As imperfect a fit as Kentucky is in the Southeastern Conference, two things UK does not have to worry about in the SEC are stability and cold, hard cash.

So at the end of a triumphant eight days for U of L sports, what ultimately will determine whether the experience of being a Louisville fan trumps that of being a UK fan going forward is one question:

Will the ACC that exists now be the one Louisville ultimately joins in 2014 and the one in which it will be playing a decade from now?

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: Markstory.bloginky.com.

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