Posted: 9:41 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013
By Glenn Logan
In college sports, we often hail tradition and rivalries as a major reason for the passion surrounding it. That's manifestly true for rivalries like the Kentucky Wildcats and Louisville Cardinals, the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers, or the Duke Blue Devils and the North Carolina Tar Heels. These are rivalries which have withstood the test of time, and inspire great passion among the fans, if not so much among the teams themselves.
Traditional games have been important, too. The Third Saturday in October game between Alabama and the Tennessee Volunteers comes immediately to mind, as well as the Iron Bowl and the Egg Bowl. These are all traditional games between rivals that have the possibility of being altered or eliminated due to conference expansion. In college football at large, there is the Red River Rivalry between the Texas Longhorns and the Oklahoma Sooners, which is still there, but the Texas-Texas A&M; Aggies rivalry is now relegated to the scrap heap of history alongside the Nebraska Cornhuskers-Oklahoma and the Michigan Wolverines-Notre Dame Fighting Irish game.
The Tennessee-Kentucky basketball series now joins that graveyard, and it's a sad thing to see. For those born in the last three decades, this series might not even seem like a rivalry, and that may have contributed to its ultimate demise. But back in the 1970's and 1980's, this rivalry burned as hot as any in college basketball. A good number of younger fans undoubtedly remember the heat of the Kentucky-Arkansas Razorbacks rivalry back in the heyday of Rick Pitino and Nolan Richardson, but even taken in historical context, that rivalry pales in comparison to the height of Kentucky-Tennessee.
Kentucky and Tennessee have played 216 times since their first meeting in ... wait for it ... 1910. That's right, Kentucky and Tennessee have been playing basketball against each other for over 100 years, and if that isn't a tradition, I don't know what is. This is the longest-running basketball rivalry that Kentucky has. Nobody else is even close. Since the inception of basketball at Kentucky, Tennessee has been on the schedule.
Tennessee has a .45 winning percentage against Kentucky, by far the best of any founding member of the SEC. There was a period of time between 1970 and 1980 when Tennessee was the better program, going 12-9 against the Wildcats, and in two separate stretches of years taking 5 in a row and 4 in a row against Kentucky. If you want rivalry credentials, no two teams in SEC basketball history have better credentials than Kentucky and Tennessee.
Naturally, this decision is all about the money, which is, as we all know, the root of most such decisions. Were this a football game like Alabama-Tennessee, it is doubtful that the SEC would have made this call. But as we all know, basketball is second-fiddle at best in this league, and as such, Slive & Co. have no real compunction to maintain what they would contend are "so-called" rivalries in basketball. Hence, the purely economic decision to spread the wealth of a game at Rupp Arena among all the SEC faithful. They may have trouble burning football rivalries, but they have no problem whatsoever with consigning basketball rivalries to the dustbin of history.
I think this is sad, and I am heartbroken to see the tradition die. To be fair, it has happened to other worthy games, and it isn't as though we won't play the Vols at all -- we will, once in Rupp Arena. So you can chalk up this lament to just one more in a long line of old-timers hating to see their childhood traditions gutted and sacrificed on the alter of economic egalitarianism. Those of us who are basketball fans first really hate to see their sport treated like a casino chip, but quite honestly, that's about what we can expect.
That doesn't mean, though, that I don't get to complain about it. Join me if you're of a mind.