Why describing Kentucky as ‘a basketball school’ is problematic — and outdated

·5 min read
Matt Goins/Herald-Leader file photo

When Alabama football visited Lexington to play Kentucky in 2013, a player both schools were then recruiting, John Hardin defensive lineman Matt Elam, was making an unofficial recruiting visit to UK.

As Elam stood near the Wildcats sideline with other Kentucky recruits during pregame warm-ups, I just happened to look down from the press box as an Alabama football assistant near midfield was making an effort to catch Elam’s eye.

Once he had succeeded, the Crimson Tide aide first pointed to the largely empty stands at the then-Commonwealth Stadium (as it turned out, what would be a sellout crowd of 69,873 was late arriving). Then, the Alabama coach raised his hand and flicked his wrist — as if shooting a basketball — a couple of times.

The message being delivered was not subtle: Why would a football recruit who could go to Alabama want to go to “a basketball school?”

UK ultimately got Elam, of course. But Kentucky’s history of hoops success has been used against Wildcats football coaches by rival recruiters for almost seven decades — ever since Bear Bryant bailed on the commonwealth in 1953, ceding the Bluegrass State to Adolph Rupp.

That’s why so many with an emotional investment in Wildcats football starting, apparently, with Mark Stoops, were so livid when John Calipari, in a riff to reporters in the Bahamas on Thursday, proclaimed UK “a basketball school” while naming two other SEC schools, Georgia and Alabama, as “football schools.”

In reply, Stoops took to Twitter, writing, “Basketball school? I thought we competed in the SEC?”

Then, going for the jugular with a hashtag, Stoops added #4straightpostseasonwins.

Presumably it is not lost on anyone reading this that, while Kentucky football has four consecutive bowl wins, UK men’s basketball has not won an NCAA Tournament game since 2019.

With eight NCAA titles on its résumé, the Kentucky men’s basketball program, clearly, has the longest history of success of any team on the UK campus. There’s no one rational arguing that.

At the presidential level, however, the University of Kentucky made a commitment two decades ago to no longer be a one-trick act when it came to sports.

That is why calling the UK of 2022 “a basketball school” denies the reality of what Kentucky has deliberately become: an athletics department trying to build championship-level programs in a wide array of different sports.

Over the last two school years alone, Kentucky has won two NCAA team championships in rifle and another in women’s volleyball; it has finished as the NCAA Tournament runner-up in men’s tennis; it was third in the national championships in both women’s indoor and outdoor track and field; it won an SEC championship in women’s swimming; it won an SEC Tournament title in women’s basketball; and won the Conference USA Tournament championship in men’s soccer.

Last year, current and former Kentucky Wildcats athletes won gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics in women’s track and field, men’s rifle and men’s basketball. Last summer, a Kentucky golfer won the U.S. Women’s Amateur. This spring, a UK women’s hoops star went No. 1 overall in the WNBA Draft. This summer, ex-Cats were huge stories while collecting gold medals for Team USA in the 2022 world track and field championships.

Oh, and the 2021 Kentucky football team won 10 games — for the second time in four years — and defeated Big Ten West Division champion Iowa in the VRBO Citrus Bowl.

A university that has had as much athletics success in so many different areas in recent years as the University of Kentucky has had deserves to be seen — and described — as more than “a basketball school.”

Calipari’s comments apparently arose from frustration that UK has been slow to green-light the construction of a new basketball practice facility. The current one, the $30 million Joe Craft Center, is only 15 years old after opening in 2007. Yet Cal has taken to bemoaning that it has become outdated and unimpressive to recruits.

Other than Kentucky’s and Louisville’s, I haven’t been inside any college basketball practice facilities. So I can’t judge where UK’s currently stands.

What I do know is that, in February, the UK Board of Trustees approved the authority for Kentucky Athletics to spend $30 million on three facilities projects.

A sum of $20 million is to go to build a new indoor training facility for track and field; $5 million will then go to renovate Nutter Field House for the football team; and $5 million for new Kroger Field scoreboards.

It was announced at the time that the money for the projects would come from UK Athletics fundraising.

To coin a phrase, the basketball program “not eating first” in that appropriation apparently led to this past week’s drama.

Meanwhile, it’s interesting. The buzzword in college sports in recent years has been “alignment.” In this context, it means a belief that having all of the major figures in a university’s sports chain of command pulling in the same direction is the big picture key to athletics success.

At a time when the rapidly changing college sports landscape has created an acute need for a unified vision for Kentucky sports, how “aligned” has UK looked this past week?