NCAA Final Four: Basketball royalty, but how's their football lineage?

As a general rule, teams that achieve great success on the hardwood can't boast of the same on the gridiron.

Gerald Herbert/AP
Kentucky forward Anthony Davis talks to reporters during a news conference in New Orleans, Thursday, March 29. Kentucky will play Louisville in an NCAA tournament Final Four semifinal college basketball game on Saturday.

Basketball and football excellence seldom go hand in hand in college sports – at least not in the same academic year – and the teams playing in Saturday’s NCAA Final Four in New Orleans are no exception.

Only one of the basketball programs represents a “football school.” And that school, as fans realize, is not Kentucky, Kansas, or Louisville, but Ohio State. Yet last fall the Buckeyes turned in one of their poorest seasons in many years.  Their 6-7 overall record (3-5 in the Big Ten Conference) came after two scandals involving the football team that led to suspensions of key players and the resignation under pressure of head coach Jim Tressel.

In the history of the NCAA basketball tournament, which dates to 1939, the fans of only one college have been able to chant “We’re No. 1” in football and basketball in the same school year. That was the University of Florida. The Gators turned the trick during the 2006 football season and the basketball campaign that immediately followed, when Yoakim Noah and a few of his talented sidekicks resisted the temptation to turn pro early and stayed on to secure a second straight basketball title at the end of the 2006-07 season.

If any school ever had a golden opportunity for synergy between basketball and football, it was UCLA during the Bruins’ incredible basketball reign under Coach John Wooden, when the team won 10 championships in the space of a dozen years, beginning in 1964.

The football squad managed to pull itself up by the shoelaces during this stretch, landing in the season-ending Top 20 polls four different times, including a No. 5 AP ranking in 1966, the year UCLA quarterback Gary Beban won the Heisman Trophy.

The general argument is that there can only be one dominant sport on any campus, that there just isn’t enough institutional support in various forms to be spread equally between two major sports teams. 

Also, in the intense world of college recruiting, blue chippers want to go to schools where their sport is king because it means more visibility and adulation – and the potential for major bowl bids, top March Madness seedings, and possibly a national championship.  

As for the other schools in this year’s Final Four:

Louisville went unranked in football in the school years in which it won its two NCAA basketball championships, 1980 and 1986.

Kansas has enjoyed slightly better success. Before winning the last of its three NCAA basketball titles in 2008, the Jayhawk football team posted a No. 7 ranking in the final 2007 AP poll.

Kentucky has won seven national basketball championships, which is second only to UCLA. Although its football program is often usually well overshadowed by what happens on the hardwood, the Wildcats were highly ranked in football twice in the prelude to basketball championships in 1951 and 1978, finishing No. 7 and No. 6, respectively, in the final AP polls. The first of those football teams was coached by Bear Bryant, one of the legends of the game who achieved his greatest fame at Alabama.

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