CRAWFORD | Kentucky reasserts itself as all-sports rivalry with Louisville heats up
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Mitch Barnhart is a mountain climber. He has climbed to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. He has scaled Mt. Rainier.
But neither of those presented the kind of long-term challenge that turning the University of Kentucky into a comprehensive broad-based athletic success has been.
Last week, UK turned in a finish of No. 22 in the annual Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup all-sports standings, the second-best in school history. A year ago, the school finished at No. 11, best ever for a Division I university in the state of Kentucky.
It’s a long way from where UK was. When I arrived as a sportswriter here in 2000, UK ranked 70th in the all-sports index. From 2007 to 2011, UK was outperformed in the Directors’ Cup by the University of Louisville, a school that had more ground to make up and a smaller budget to do it with.
UK and U of L are compared in everything. It’s inevitable. That’s what a rivalry is about. (Click the second image above for a year-by-year comparsion and a listing of top programs over the past five- and 10-year periods.) This year, U of L finished 29th in the Directors’ Cup standings. Want to know how far athletic director Tom Jurich has brought that athletic department? In 2000, U of L finished 174th in the Directors’ Cup. Where it is today, from the standpoint of facilities and on-field achievement, is difficult to fathom if you were around U of L at all in the 1980s and 1990s.
When Jurich arrived at U of L, nobody talked about how the schools compared across the board athletically, because there was no competition. Now, there is.
In fact, a comprehensive examination of the Directors’ Cup results for the two schools for the past decade shows just how much competition there is, and where each program is strongest.
In the five seasons from 2006 to 2010, U of L actually narrowly beat UK on points, 2,855.5 to 2,836.9.
In the most recent five seasons, however, UK has reasserted itself. It has 6,640.2 points in that span to 6,087.5 for U of L.
Time for some trivia. What has been the most consistently excellent Division I sport in Kentucky for the past decade? Think before you answer — because it may surprise you.
The answer is the UK rifle team. It has been in the top seven nationally for each of the past 10 seasons. Now, only 33 schools compete in the sport nationally — and not all of them are Division I. That a top-five finish in rifle counts the same as a top-five in basketball is a bone of contention for some, but excellence is excellence.
— Rifle is a huge part of UK’s edge in this comparison — it has piled up 779.5 Directors’ Cup points in the past decade. The next most for any sport at the two schools has been 570. And what team posted that number?
— It’s no surprise that numbers 2, 3 and 4 on the list of top Directors’ Cup sports the past decade are filled by basketball teams. It might surprise you that the one at the top is U of L women’s basketball with 570. U of L men’s basketball is next with 566, then UK men’s basketball with 556.
— It’s no question, U of L has had more success in the higher-profile non-revenue sports of baseball, men’s soccer and women’s basketball. Along with men’s basketball, U of L fills four of the top six spots on the list of the past decade’s top programs with those sports.
— But when it comes to the Directors’ Cup, which takes the best of 10 scores from men’s sports and 10 from women’s, depth is more important than high-profile runs. If you look at the top-earning sports for the past decade, UK owns spots 7-13 on the list, beginning with women’s gymnastics, one of only four teams from the two programs to score Cup points in each of the past 10 years. (UK rifle, and U of L softball and men’s swimming are the others. Three others — U of L men’s and women’s basketball and UK women’s volleyball — have scored in nine of the past 10 years).
— How important is depth? In the “Year of the Cardinal” in 2013, when U of L won the national title in men’s basketball, played in the title game in women’s basketball and also won a BCS Bowl and appeared in the College World Series, it also had its worst Directors’ Cup performance in the past five years, 38th, because only 10 sports hit the board that year. UK finished 25th. Conversely, in UK’s record year of 2104, 22 sports scored.
— It’s also an advantage to have a strong track and field program, because the Directors’ Cup awards separate points for both the indoor and outdoor seasons. UK’s strength in men’s track and its emergence in women’s has helped in that area.
— Where’s football? The sport around which the budgets of both schools center and around which the college athletic universe revolves is pretty much a non-factor in its impact on the all-sports discussion at the schools. UK has posted scores (by reaching a bowl) in only five of the past 10 years, and U of L in seven of the past 10. In a listing of the 20 highest-scoring sports from the two programs over the past decade, U of L football checks in at No. 17.
— There is a “bang for the buck” factor, as well. Take a look at last season. UK finished 22nd, U of L 29th. UK also had an athletic budget of $109 million. U of L’s was $86.25 million. UK’s margin has grown in recent years as the SEC has separated itself as a preeminent revenue-generating league. UK has begun plunging much of that revenue into new facilities after watching U of L be the more aggressive department in building new facilities for nearly 20 years, and reaping the benefits.
— Neither athletic director will stand still. Barnhart, who was named national Athletic Director of the Year by his peers this year, told his coaches and athletes after last season that his goal is to finish in the top five of the Directors’ Cup by 2022.
“I’ve thought about this over the last month and I keep coming back to one of my greatest passions: mountain climbing,” Barnhart said. “Becoming what we are today has been quite a climb already. It’s brought us to within a few thousand feet of the summit, but those final few thousand feet of the climb are the toughest.”
— At U of L, Jurich is poised to reap the benefits of joining the ACC. Women’s basketball has one of the nation’s top recruiting classes on its way in. Baseball had its run of back-to-back College World Series trips snapped this year but returns one of the top freshmen in the nation with a team that should have a chance to go back to Omaha. Ken Lolla has had time to reap the benefits of U of L’s new soccer stadium. The swim programs are on a solid footing, and the Cardinals will look for the golf and track and field programs to begin an upswing.
Jurich is candid about not having the resources that his cross-state rival has. He also hasn’t wavered on the attitude he wants in his program.
“We want to be Avis,” Jurich said. “I want that ‘we try harder’ atmosphere. I want that around our department and I want our people to be hungry for that. But my ultimate goal is that I want little brother to be 6-4 and 285. And that’s what we’ve been able to do. We’ve been able to succeed in a lot of different ways.”
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