While the last decade or so have resulted in a great deal of instability at the Division I level from a conference alignment standpoint, the first major changes to the system began in the 1990s. Less than a decade after a landmark Supreme Court case removed NCAA-imposed limits on how often schools could appear on national television (it’s a long read), schools began moving around with football (same at it ever was) serving as the catalyst.
Penn State joined the Big Ten, Florida State moved to the ACC and Miami joined the Big East in what were considered to be the three biggest moves by schools that were independents when it came to football. And according to a story written by Mark Story in the Lexington Herald-Leader there was another move up for consideration: Kentucky leaving the SEC to join the ACC.
Former Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton had some interesting comments on the situation, which consisted of quiet discussions between he, then school president Dr. Charles Wethington and ACC leaders, including how he saw Kentucky’s connection to the SEC and that of Florida State to the ACC.
Among the officials he met with, Newton said, were then-ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan and then-Duke Athletics Director Tom Butters.
“They wanted us to come on and join their league,” Newton said. “I thought, with the way (UK) football was (struggling in the SEC), that might have been the best path for us. I always felt like (Florida State) was an SEC school in the ACC and Kentucky an ACC school in the SEC.”
Given the amount of success enjoyed by Kentucky’s basketball program a move to the ACC certainly would have captivated college basketball fans, with the Wildcats having the opportunity to play conference games against the likes of Duke and North Carolina. But there’s also something to be said for the rivalries the school enjoyed in the SEC, and while money has been the biggest factor in conference realignment the dollars weren’t as plentiful during the 1990s as they are now.
A move to the ACC could have benefitted Kentucky, but as Newton pointed out in the story it would have been very tough to leave a league as strong (and as lucrative) as the SEC.