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Kentucky Football: Should UK Change Conferences To Help Football?

The easy fix. That's how people see the idea that Kentucky should look for another football conference to play in because it hasn't been competitive in the SEC. We see this suggestion periodically when UK has a poor football season, as it has had so far this year.

I addressed the problem of growing a football team within a conference like the SEC back in 2007 when Kentucky was at its most recent peak. Those words still ring as true today as they did back then -- growing a football team in the stony ground of a conference like the SEC isn't just difficult, it's well-nigh impossible on an ongoing basis.

So Mark Story, like others I have seen lately, proposes the obvious solution -- change conferences. Leave the SEC for more fertile football ground. He suggests the ACC as the best destination, and as destinations go, it is unquestionably a pretty good one. But I don't think it will happen, and I'll explain why.

The number one reason is that despite the recent spate of fan outrage over UK's poor performance, it is mostly, but certainly not exclusively, from fans who don't give a rip about college football. These are basketball-first fans who think so highly of their favorite school that they believe it should be good at everything. Kentucky is a basketball-first school, and all the high expectations in the world for football won't change that fact.

That doesn't mean UK fans don't care about football, they do. They will bend your ear, or your comment stream all day telling you how UK should make a commitment to football. But if I were to posit the question, "Would you be okay with decreasing support for our basketball program to make football better?", I suspect the answer would be, "Are you freaking crazy? Have you lost your ever-loving mind???"

College sports is not exactly zero-sum game, but there are good reasons why most schools do not excel at football and basketball, and the biggest reason for that is simply money. Keeping in mind that the institutional mission for the University of Kentucky is at least nominally about education and not sports teams, there is no reason to expect that the university should kick in funds, which leaves boosters and other donors of cash as the only source of revenue other than the money that is being earned by sports teams right now, and we all know who gets to the trough first at feeding time. Let's face it, my brothers and sisters of the Big Blue Nation, a call for special donations to fund a football project is much harder to sell than a basketball project, and football projects tend to be much more costly.

Kentucky fans love their football, even when the Wildcats stink. Even back during the years when Kentucky has been really bad, attendance has been in the 63,000+ range (post-1999 expansion). The only year in which game attendance has dipped below 60,000 was 2006, a year after a 3 bad seasons in a row and interestingly enough, one of the best years in recent memory. But that season also got off to a slow start, the team being only 2-2 after the Florida game -- wait, that sounds familiar ...

The bottom line is that contrary to popular belief, Kentucky fans turn out in good numbers for football almost regardless of team performance. It is a social occasion and an occasion to show school spirit that happens almost in spite of how well or poorly the team is doing. But loving to go to football games does not translate to rabid support of the football program like you would see south of Lexington. Even Louisville has more genuine support of their football team than Kentucky does, at least for the moment. A winning team, according to my eyeball, translates to roughly 5000 extra fans per game, virtually 100% of which are fair-weather football fans.

So would changing conferences help? In this writer's opinion, maybe, but would it help enough to be worth it? A weaker football conference would allow Kentucky to be more competitive on a weekly basis, and would likely lead to better on-the-field performance. Structural problems with the location of Kentucky, the type of school it is, and the recruiting base put a ceiling on the performance that UK is likely to be able to reach, just as structural problems with Ole Miss, Auburn, Georgia and South Carolina limit the amount of success they are likely to consistently achieve in basketball.

It appears to me, though, that it is very unlikely Kentucky would ever consider leaving the SEC. As a founding member, they have found a niche here even without a competitive football program, much as Vanderbilt has. Kentucky will have good years and bad years, but is unlikely to ever again see a conference championship, even though it could happen. Unlike days gone by, the recruiting distribution has changed, and never has the gap between the rich and poor been so great in the SEC. That's obvious to anyone with an eye and a brain.

As long as great athletes keep away from Kentucky and as long as we can't grow our own, it is impossible to see us as an SEC championship contender, and until we are a perennial contender, they are unlikely to come. And why would these players come to UK -- for the basketball games or pretty girls? If they won't come consistently for Steve Spurrier, a College Football Hall of Fame player and future Hall of Fame coach at South Carolina, a school with vastly more football support than Kentucky and a state with many more good players, what makes you think they will come here? Elegant chicken-egg problem, isn't it?

For the football lovers at Kentucky, I have some bad news. In my opinion, you will rarely, if ever, see this team with a winning record in the SEC, and no one hopes more than me that I am wrong about that. You may see them in many minor bowls, but not playing in Atlanta in November.

Will Kentucky change conferences to change their stars? I doubt it. As long as they are with the SEC, the revenue they share with the rest of the conference will always be better than most, including the ACC. It also goes without mentioning that Kentucky basketball would not be the Mack Daddy in the ACC every year like it is in the SEC. So if you're hoping for a change in conference affiliation to happen, may I respectfully recommend that you don't hold your breath?