John Clay: Kentucky-Tennessee a tradition diminished by college sports money grab

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 14, 2013 

Now they've gone too far.

We get this whole conference expansion thing. More teams, more money. It's money that matters. That's why the SEC has expanded from 10 to 12 to 14 teams in the past couple of decades. It's why the league could accommodate, who knows, 20 teams eventually.

More teams means more headaches, however, especially in scheduling. Not every school can play every school every year anymore. It's not feasible. It's not logical. It's not possible.

Thus no school or fan base is going to be totally happy by the sports schedule configured by the conference office.

And yet, when news leaked out of Knoxville late Tuesday night that, although the full SEC basketball schedule has yet to be announced, Kentucky will not visit Tennessee this year in basketball, well, Mike Slive and company have crossed a bridge too far.

It will be the first time since 1952-53 that the Big Blue has not visited the Big Orange to play hoops.

Once upon a time, college athletics was all about tradition. In fact, tradition is what built college athletics in the first place. That was then.

Now means Notre Dame has shamrocks on its helmets and Kentucky incorporates black and gray into its color scheme and West Virginia travels 2,000 miles to play road games in the Big 12 Conference.

Kentucky-Tennessee was SEC basketball tradition in a league without a bounty of that sort of thing.

It was Knoxville's Stokely Athletic Center with its tartan floor. It was Lexington's Memorial Coliseum and Rupp Arena. It was Bernie and Ernie for Tennessee; Goose Givens and Kyle Macy for Kentucky.

It was Ray Mears with his ugly orange coat. It was Joe B. Hall with his rolled-up program. It was Tennessee students chanting, "Sit Down, Joe B." It was Kentucky students throwing oranges when the Vols took the floor at Memorial.

One game a year was never enough.

Kentucky-Tennessee football hasn't been much of a rivalry thanks to UT's dominance, but Kentucky-Tennessee basketball, even though UK normally came out on top, was more competitive and entertaining.

That's especially true when the games are in Knoxville. Strange things were known to happen in Stokely. In the memory of Kentucky fans, phantom foul calls were made. Bitterness was a yearly byproduct.

It's what made the game fun, especially among those who happened to live closest to the border.

Once a former UK student media relations assistant, who lived within rock-throwing distance of the Kentucky-Tennessee state line, told me her mother hated the state to the south so much that she had "Go to H--- Tennessee" painted as part of the motif in their Big Blue basement.

True, Tennessee will visit UK in 2013-14 (with no game in Thompson-Boling) and UK will visit Tennessee in 2014-15 (with no game in Rupp), but it won't be the same.

Instead, Kentucky and Florida are thought to be the permanent home-and-home foes for basketball because the Cats and Gators have been the top two teams in the conference in recent years, and that's what the good folks who run the television networks want.

These are the same television people who bring you the TBA starting times. Oh, you say you have to line up a baby sitter, or know if you might need to book a hotel? Sorry. They only care about the TV viewer. They don't care about the fans who come to the games.

That's why they don't care whether a traditional rival Kentucky comes to a traditional rival Tennessee every year or vice versa. And if television doesn't care, then the conferences don't care, because what the conferences care most about is cashing the checks.

And then they wonder why fewer people are coming to the games.

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

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