Basketball rules Kentucky, but Mark Stoops is making football history | David Whitley

David Whitley
Gator Sports

Mark Stoops hates to hear it, but Florida faces America’s best football team from a basketball school on Saturday.

That would be Kentucky, which as we should all know by now is not the same Kentucky that once lost 31 straight games to the Gators. 

This Kentucky was ranked in the preseason top 25 for the first time since 1978. It was another milestone in the reclamation project Stoops undertook in 2013.

A bigger milestone came last month when Stoops bowed up to John Calipari. For most of recorded human history, if Kentucky’s football coach did that to Kentucky’s basketball coach, his remains would have quickly been deposited in a junkyard outside of Paducah.

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Calipari was politicking for a new practice facility and said, “This is a basketball school. It’s always been that.”

Stoops tweeted, “Basketball school? I thought we competed in the SEC.” He added the hashtag #4straightpostseasonwins.

Debate shines spotlight on Mark Stoops' achievement

Coach Mark Stoops has made remarkable strides with Kentucky football. The Wildcats were ranked in the preseason top 25 for the first time since 1978.

It was a nice shot at Calipari’s recent postseason struggles. Their spat was trivially entertaining, but it also illuminated what a remarkable job Stoops has done.

Basketball schools simply do not win football championships. The Wildcats haven’t won one either, at least not since 1950. But its fans no longer have to drink a barrel of bourbon to conceive of such a thing.

They do have to be soused to claim Kentucky’s not a basketball school. Bear Bryant forever crystallized that after his 1950 team won the national championship.

“The other night we had a joint basketball-football banquet,” he said. “Adolph Rupp was presented with a big four-door Cadillac. All I got was a cigarette lighter.”

Bryant knew a lost cause and eventually left for Texas A&M — a football school. There is no firm definition for “basketball” vs. “football” school, but it’s not that hard to figure out.

Which sport first comes to mind when you hear the school’s name? Which sport drives its fans to elation and insanity?

Do you think an Alabama nut-job would have poisoned Auburn’s trees over basketball? Conversely, do you think Duke students would ever camp out for weeks in the cold to get tickets to a football game?

No way. And that’s not an insult to the No. 2 sport on campus.

So who are those basketball schools anyway?

The No. 1 sport has been culturally embedded over generations, and it would take generations to change that. We can’t comprehensively list which schools are what, but you know who they are.

Football: Notre Dame, Ohio State, the entire SEC (except for Kentucky and maybe Vanderbilt), Clemson, Miami, USC, FSU, 90% of the Big 12.

Basketball: Kansas, half the ACC, one-third the Big Ten, UCLA, Arizona, Villanova, Gonzaga.

Schools can excel at both sports. But there’s a difference between excelling and actually winning championships.

In the past 30 years, four football schools have been crowned basketball’s king. UF twice, Arkansas, Baylor and Michigan State. And it’s a tossup whether the last one’s a football or basketball school.

In the past 30 years, zero basketball schools have won football national championships. The NCAA tournament’s been dominated by Duke, North Carolina, UConn, Kentucky, Kansas and Villanova.

You have to go back to 1960 to find a basketball school that won AP’s final football poll. And I’m not sure if Minnesota was a basketball, football, hockey or ice fishing school back then.

Why is there such an impenetrable glass ceiling?

Culture, for one thing. Kansas could hire a water boy from Georgia as its next football coach, and its fans wouldn’t really notice. When Bill Self packs it in, the replacement list will be a who’s-who.

But the biggest reason basketball schools don't win football titles is recruiting. Everything in sports comes back to talent acquisition.

Billy Napier has spent the week praising all things Kentucky. He touched on an underlying truth, however, when he said the Wildcats have “good players that maybe weren’t highly regarded, but they’re just as good as anybody in the country.”

You’ll never hear an opposing coach say that about Kentucky hoops. When Calipari calls, five-star recruits in America listen.

Stoops must take largely three-star talent and develop it. Only three of his first nine recruiting classes were ranked in the top 30.

You can go far with that dynamic. Kentucky’s gone to six straight bowl games. Nobody would be surprised this Saturday if the Wildcats beat Florida for the third time in five years.

They would be flabbergasted if Kentucky dethrones Georgia in the SEC East, beats Alabama for the conference title, makes the playoffs and wins a national championship in football.

History shows that’s not what basketball schools do.

If Stoops can change that, Kentucky shouldn’t just give Stoops a four-door Cadillac. It should make Calipari his permanent chauffeur.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley.