While some fans of school in Lexington may be ready to relegate their football program back to its dusty spot on the shelf, already having morphed into basketball mode, followers of the University of Louisville are preparing for one of the most symbolic football games in school history.
UofL and Notre Dame will meet for the first time ever in football Saturday at South Bend, ushering in a significant new rivalry. The iconic symbol of collegiate athletic programs in America, Notre Dame is the team every other team in America wants to play.
Saturday’s game will be another reaffirmation of the school’s commitment to compete at the highest levels in all sports. While basketball will always be a prestige program, Rick Pitino’s teams must share top billing with Bobby Petrino’s football program. UofL has been investing heavily in both programs for quite a while.
That’s as it should be because college football is among America’s most popular sports, falling only behind the National Football League and Major League Baseball in overall popularity, according to a 2014 Harris Poll. Auto racing is fourth, the National Basketball Association fifth, and the National Hockey League is sixth.
College basketball is seventh, believe it or not, only slightly ahead of tennis, boxing, swimming and golf. The poll results aren’t broken down by geography but suffice it to say, college basketball would obviously score much higher in Kentucky. Even in Louisville, which is consistently among the top TV markets for NCAA basketball.
Tom Jurich is ahead of the curve, having made the UofL football program one of his top priorities after his arrival. He has already engineered one major stadium expansion and he’s considering still another. Jurich was working for a date with Notre Dame long before the Atlantic Coast Conference was considered a possibility. He was able to leverage UofL’s football and basketball success into ACC membership, paving the way for this historic game.
Meanwhile over in Lexington, the University of Kentucky is finally renovating Commonwealth Stadium to accommodate more luxury suites (even though it is losing 6,000 seats) and investing in Mark Stoops to make football competitive. No doubt Kentucky fans will quickly jump aboard the band wagon if and when he does. Meanwhile, UK will remain a basketball school in a conference in which football will always be king.
Curiously, Kentucky and Notre Dame have never played in football, despite having played 62 basketball games since 1929. Whether UK administrators weren’t able to use their basketball leverage to get on Notre Dame’s schedule, UK couldn’t envision such a game, or the Irish simply weren’t interested may never be known. But it probably says something about Kentucky’s over-the-top obsession with basketball.