Mark Story: UK once had talks to do what U of L is now doing — join the ACC

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 19, 2014 

On July 1, the tectonic plates beneath college sports in the commonwealth will shift when the University of Louisville joins the Atlantic Coast Conference.

It's hard to overstate how important membership in the ACC — which Tom Jurich outmaneuvered Connecticut to attain — is to U of L. Being in the ACC secures a place for Louisville in one of the "Big Five" college sports leagues — the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC are the other four — at the exact time when there are rumblings that those conferences could separate from the rest of college athletics in some form.

Given the scalding intensity of U of L's rivalry with the University of Kentucky, it is of historical interest to note that it was once UK in talks with the Atlantic Coast Conference's top officials about joining that league.

In the 1990s, during C.M. Newton's tenure as Kentucky athletics director and Charles Wethington's time as UK president, Kentucky had exploratory talks about leaving the SEC for the ACC.

"We talked to them very seriously, but very quietly," Newton said last week. "Dr. Wethington had me go over and talk to them for a short period one evening."

Among the officials he met with, Newton said, were then-ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan and then-Duke Athletics Director Tom Butters.

"They wanted us to come on and join their league," Newton said. "I thought, with the way (UK) football was (struggling in the SEC), that might have been the best path for us. I always felt like (Florida State) was an SEC school in the ACC and Kentucky an ACC school in the SEC."

Even now, reigning national champion FSU is a football-first school in a league historically known for the primacy of its men's hoops. Coming off three Final Four trips in the past four seasons, UK still carries the reputation of a "basketball school" in a football-crazed league.

In the 1990s, Newton said the powers that be at Kentucky, a founding member of the SEC, decided it was best not to unmoor UK from its traditional league home.

(Newton, 84, has had ample health issues in recent months, including surgery as a result of bladder cancer that was then followed by complications from infection. If you are praying for ex-UK basketball player Todd Svoboda in his battle with bone cancer, you might want to add the former UK AD and Transylvania University basketball coach to your list.)

Working off memory "of things that happened 20 years ago," Newton said he does not believe finances were the big reason UK said no to the ACC to stay in the SEC.

"We didn't do a detailed financial analysis, as I remember it," Newton said. "But we did talk about it, and it seemed we could do about as well then financially (as being in the SEC)."

Based on competitive factors in football and men's basketball, I have long thought the ACC would have been the most natural fit for Kentucky.

It would have placed the UK football program — which has produced a winning SEC record a whopping seven times since the league began in 1933, and not at all since 1977 — in a conference where it would have had a more realistic shot to succeed.

Kentucky men's hoops would gain the exciting challenge of playing in a league with fellow college basketball luminaries North Carolina and Duke.

In fairness, there are now — and were in the 1990s — strong reasons for UK to remain in the SEC. Tradition, financial security and league stability are three.

Still, starting this fall, it will be Louisville football playing in a league with enough major foes — FSU, Clemson, Miami if it ever gets its act back together — to be attractive yet not so many as to be crushing.

In the years ahead, it will be the red-and-black set in the KFC Yum Center that will get a diet of league games with North Carolina, Duke, Syracuse, Notre Dame, etc. ...

Unless Mark Stoops makes UK football competitive in the SEC in a way no Wildcats coach other than Bear Bryant (22-18-4 in league contests from 1946-53) has ever done, Louisville in the ACC is apt to provide a more enjoyable payback on its fans' emotional investment than UK in the SEC does for Cats backers.

Had things gone differently in the 1990s, that might not be the case.

"There were a lot of ways in which I thought (UK moving to) the ACC made sense," Newton said. "... But, at the end of the day, it's just doggone tough for a school to leave the SEC."

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

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