CRAWFORD | Rethinking the U of L-UK rivalry in the BCS era - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Rethinking the U of L-UK rivalry in the BCS era

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- In some ways, this is going to be an arbitrarily framed discussion. But there is some reasoning behind its logic.

The premise: Since the University of Louisville gained an equal conference footing (and one might argue that it has hardly been equal -- more on that to come) with its entry into the Big East Conference in 2006, it has posted far superior across-the-board results than its better-funded "big brother" rival, the University of Kentucky.

Some backstory. UK always has had the benefit of major conference membership. The Southeastern Conference has been college sports royalty from as far back as college football became a powerful presence on the sports landscape. When college sports began to take on the country club mentality of haves and have-nots, and excluding smaller conferences from the football championship apparatus, UK squarely was inside the country club.

U of L was not. As football and media money became more important over the past 15 years, the Cardinals and their athletic programs operated at a substantial disadvantage, one that became even more pronounced as SEC football windfalls meant larger payouts to its member schools.

In some ways, of course, getting into a BCS conference did not really level the playing field for U of L against its power-conference rival.

In 2004-2005, the last year before U of L entered the Big East Conference, UK showed athletic expenses of $52.4 million dollars in forms submitted to the NCAA. U of L the same year spent $38.6 million.  That gap of 13.8 million was considerable, but consider the budgets the two proposed just this month.

UK will operate under a $104.4 million athletic budget next season. U of L's will be $77 million. So while U of L has moved up into the lead draft of national athletic programs, and in a couple of years actually has entered the top 10-15 nationally in revenue, its gap with Kentucky has grown. U of L now will spend $27.4 million less than UK next season.

Beginning with U of L's first year in the Big East, in fact, the gap did close for several years, until in 2011-12, U of L actually outspent UK by a small amount. Still, over the seven years since moving to the BCS level, U of L has been outspent by UK by a total of nearly $59 million.

That average gap of $8.4 million per year, however, is about as level a financial playing field as U of L is likely to get.

So let's see what they've done with it.

Forget history or tradition. Just compare the programs from when U of L moved to the BCS level and, for the first time in its history, had some semblance of a more fair conference playing field on which to compete.

In those seasons, U of L has twice been to and won BCS bowls. It has twice been to the College World Series. It has twice been to the NCAA women's basketball championship game and it has twice been to the men's Final Four and once won a men's NCAA basketball championship. It also has had a men's soccer team advance to the NCAA championship game.

During the same time, UK also has been to a pair of Final Fours and won a men's basketball national title.

But of those other sports, baseball, football, women's basketball and soccer, UK has not advanced to a single national championship stage, not only in the past seven years, but in its history.

So while UK may wear the historic "big brother" mantle, from a standpoint of performance since both schools had "BCS" branding, for want of a better term, UK is playing catch-up with U of L.

There are mitigating factors. Would U of L have two BCS bowl wins were it competing in the SEC? Likely not. But SEC membership would've allowed U of L even more revenue to move even more quickly on football facilities, and would've allowed it to recruit even better players than it did. So it's difficult to project. And even if U of L did take an easier road to BCS bowls, it did soundly defeat an SEC team in Florida once it reached the Sugar Bowl.

Baseball, too, is much more difficult in the SEC. However, the Big East men's and women's basketball leagues are better than their SEC counterparts, and U of L still found a way to thrive in those and advance to Final Fours.

It's not that UK hasn't improved in the sports under examination. And there are some sports -- rifle and women's gymnastics come to mind this season -- in which UK has had postseason success. But those are sports sponsored by less than a quarter of NCAA Division I membership. It's not that UK hasn't put resources toward winning in these other sports. UK has improved rapidly in sports across the board. It just has lacked that breakthrough national success in postseason play that U of L has attained, and that more than anything in college sports determines success.

In the final analysis, once both schools were situated in conferences with access to the top shelf of college football's postseason, Big Brother has had a bigger wallet, but has not packed a bigger punch in the postseason. And when U of L finally attained the top-level branding of a long-standing conference, it has outperformed UK over a broad spectrum of the most visible NCAA sports.

It's a challenge from within the state unlike any UK has ever faced, with the exceptions of U of L men's basketball attaining top-tier status in the 1970s and '80s. Little brother finally was admitted to the country club, and has charmed the room.

Big Brother may have the larger banner collection, but not in the period in which both have had major conference affiliation, and not in the variety of sports that U of L has collected.

Every program goes through hot and cold streaks. What remains to be seen is whether this is a hot streak for the Cardinals, or evidence that with its conference hindrances put aside, U of L can outpace its in-state rival in a variety of sports for a longer haul. Its seven years at the BCS level provide only a short sample size, but U of L has a long list of accomplishments to show for those years, while its longer-established rival, in many of those sports, still is looking to make a mark.

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