Mark Story

Mark Story: If the ACC wants a 16th team what about Kentucky?

While announcing Wednesday that Notre Dame was joining the Atlantic Coast Conference in every sport but football, ACC Commissioner John Swofford said the league has no present plans to add a 16th member.

Unless Notre Dame agrees to play football as a league member, adding another school to the 14 ACC teams (after Pittsburgh and Syracuse come aboard) already committed to play football would throw off scheduling by giving the Atlantic Coast Conference an unbalanced number of schools.

Yet that is not stopping a torrent of speculation on who is in line to be the 16th member of the ACC. With the Big East widely viewed as a foundering ship, Rutgers, Connecticut and Louisville are all thought to be positioning themselves to use the ACC as a lifeboat.

Which brings me yet again to the University of Kentucky and its membership in the Southeastern Conference.

If, as now looks likely, the ACC is going to survive as one of five top-tier college football conferences, why shouldn't UK be the school to fill the final slot in a 16-team ACC?

As prestigious as it is to be a part of the Saks Fifth Avenue of college football leagues in the SEC, the historical facts scream that UK can never consistently succeed on the gridiron in that league.

They have played Southeastern Conference football for 79 years (UK sat out the World War II season of 1943). Of those 79 prior seasons of SEC football, Kentucky has produced a winning conference record all of seven times — 1949, '50, '53, '54, '64, '76 and '77.

By contrast, UK has gone winless in SEC play 13 times.

Even Kentucky's seven winning SEC seasons come with something of an asterisk.

The first three of those teams were coached by Bear Bryant. The fourth winning SEC season for UK came in the first year after Bryant left Kentucky.

Late in life, Bryant admitted that in his UK days he was operating with, let's say, a loose regard for NCAA rules. UK was on probation in 1964 under Charlie Bradshaw for conducting illegal off-season workouts. The NCAA let Kentucky decide whether to accept a bowl ban in 1976 or '77 after UK went on probation under Fran Curci in those years.

Bottom line: Accepting that Bryant recruited most of the players on Blanton Collier's first team in 1954, it's possible that Kentucky has never had a winning SEC league record in football without the aid of rules breaking.

Some say leaving the SEC would unmoor UK from its rich men's basketball tradition. I say so what? Kentucky has proven beyond all doubt it can dominate basketball in a football-first SEC. Why not take a shot at going into a league with North Carolina and Duke and (coming soon) Syracuse and showing them who the hoops boss really is?

Adding UK would allow the ACC to enhance its already regal basketball brand. Who knows, a league with three of the top five men's programs of all time might actually defy conventional wisdom and gin up a basketball TV contract lucrative enough to move the financial needle.

UK would give the ACC the same benefit adding U of L would — access to the Louisville TV market — while also bringing along the rest of the state of Kentucky.

You couldn't even consider leaving the SEC unless you knew you were headed to a league that was secure enough among the top tier conferences that the move would be financially rational.

Now that Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech seem to be anchored to the ACC by a new $50 million exit fee, the Atlantic Coast Conference should have secured its future viability in the marketplace.

Some will fret that if UK left the Southeastern Conference, it could be replaced by Louisville. I say so what? Let U of L cash that big $EC check and go 2-6 most years in league football games. The fun in that wears off.

Of all the schools that have moved during the recent college sports game of conference musical chairs, the one I most admire is Texas A&M.

After decades of playing Burger King to the University of Texas' McDonald's, the Aggies decided to take a bold risk to change their identity. The Aggies left the Big 12 and struck a new course in the Southeastern Conference because they wanted to create a brand other than as Texas' little brother.

If Kentucky really wants its football program to succeed and while there is potentially still one slot left open in the ACC, shouldn't the powers that be at UK at least talk about trying for a Texas A&M-style reinvention?