Posted: 8:00 a.m. Wednesday, June 5, 2013
By Will Shelton
Here's how it usually goes with Kentucky.
In the fall, we beat them in football. And not kind of. We dominate. In 26 straight wins from 1985-2010, Tennessee outscored Kentucky by an average of 37-17. And every other year, thousands of orange-clad faithful make the short drive to Lexington for a nice weekend and a guaranteed victory. And whether by blowout or heartbreak, when a Tennessee victory becomes clear, the Kentucky faithful who really can't stand seeing all that orange in their house always respond with what they know best: "Wait 'til basketball season."
In the winter, they beat us in basketball. And not kind of. They dominate. From 1994-2012, Kentucky went 34-8 against the Vols. That includes a run of 11 straight in the mid-to-late 90s with eight of them by at least 15 points. And every year, thousands of blue-blooded faithful make the short drive to Knoxville for a nice afternoon or evening and a guaranteed victory. And whether by blowout or heartbreak, when a Kentucky victory becomes clear, the Tennessee faithful who really can't stand seeing all that blue in our house always respond with what we know best: "Wait 'til football season."
We get football. They get basketball. And that's how it went. As much as UT football may frustrate our neighbors to the north, and as much as UK basketball may frustrate us in the south - especially because unlike Kentucky Football, Tennessee Basketball actually does have a very strong pedigree when compared to other non-UK SEC schools - that was simply the truth. In the present era, neither was much of a real rivalry because of their non-competitive nature, and both fanbases really had no choice but to simply accept the balance and move on. But because of what can best be described, if we're honest, as mutual envy of the other's success, the potential for a really great rivalry in both sports has always existed if either side could finally break through.
And in the last eight years, we've seen the balance get a little shaky.
Two things changed. First, Kentucky Football got better. From 1985-2005, Kentucky played in three bowl games, two on the shoulders of Tim Couch. But starting in 2006, the Cats made a leap to competitiveness. UK made five straight bowl games from 2006-10, peaking in 2007 with a legitimate shot at the East Division title and several weeks in the Top 25. Tennessee still stayed in front of Kentucky during that span, but the usual three-plus-touchdown margins vanished: a five point win in 2006, four overtimes in 2007, and another overtime in 2009. And though the 2011 Cats didn't make a bowl game, they did finally catch the Vols in a Lexington shocker.
And now with Mark Stoops at the helm, Kentucky Football is showing early signs of another surge.
Meanwhile, Tennessee Basketball got better. A lot better.
Bruce Pearl's arrival in 2005-06 made immediate noise with, among other things, a win at Rupp Arena. It was the first of four victories for Pearl against Kentucky in six years, including a win over the John Wall/DeMarcus Cousins superteam of 2010. John Calipari's arrival only upped the ante. Tennessee won the SEC in 2008, was ranked number one, and made three Sweet 16s and an Elite 8 under Pearl. Then Kentucky followed up with a pair of Final Fours and the 2012 title. And just when you thought Kentucky might go back to its ways of 90s dominance, Cuonzo Martin's Vols put a historic 30 point beatdown on the Cats last season.
So after two years of near misses, now Tennessee Basketball is ready to surge back into the NCAA Tournament.
And so the old ways of "We get football, you get basketball" are being threatened in new and exciting ways.
I got my masters from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, just outside Lexington. I lived in Lexington in the summer of 2009 and then spent four nights a week in Wilmore in the Fall of 2010 and 2011. The seminary would bring in students from all over the country and the world, and if they brought no basketball allegiance with them they left wearing big blue.
Whatever was said by any Kentucky fans, old or new, to me during my time in the bluegrass was always easily countered with, "Yeah, but football." Until 2011. I made a very long drive back to Lexington the Monday after Kentucky's historic win over Tennessee, and decided I wasn't going to hide. I went to the mall the very next day looking for something, and wore my orange hoodie, because either you're a fan or you're not. And it was a horrendous experience, not so much because of what people said - it'd been 26 years, they're due a few words - but because of the way people looked at me with an air of absolutely superiority, because at that moment I had nothing to say.
So when we dusted them by 30 in basketball this year, it killed me to have graduated back in December of last year and not get to make another little stroll through that mall in my orange hoodie.
Make no mistake: Kentucky Basketball certainly has a stronger historical pedigree than Tennessee Football. But Tennessee Basketball has a much stronger historical pedigree than Kentucky Football.
I've been to football games in Lexington four times, and each time been greeted with, "Wait 'til basketball season!" And it used to drive me completely insane. So much so that the last time I was there in 2007, even though a dramatic UT victory secured an all-important Eastern Division title, the first words out of my mouth after the fourth overtime were, "Wait 'til basketball season!", because since Bruce Pearl showed up, we've had every reason to believe we can beat Kentucky. The days of free Kentucky wins in Thompson-Boling Arena are over.
But Kentucky's historic 2011 win over Tennessee and the Vols' subsequent fall to the SEC's lowest tier may have instilled a similar belief in the Kentucky faithful on the football field.
And so between our close geographical proximity and the promising and potentially sustainable growth of our traditionally lesser programs, Tennessee vs Kentucky is a rivalry built on a balanced past but a much more volatile and even more passionate future. For all of these reasons, if the Wildcats do sustain real success in the fall, I have no doubt they would become one of our most enjoyable and hated rivals in football as well. And hey, maybe then we could bring the beer barrel back right?