Hall of Fame Coach Lute Olson, who headed the Wildcats program from 1983 to 2008, established a basketball dynasty. The Wildcats made it to the NCAA Tournament a record 25 consecutive years, with four trips to the Final Four and a national championship in 1997. In the process, Tucson became a basketball city.
The football team, meanwhile, has spent years trying to crack the upper echelon of the Pac-10 Conference, compiling a 128-131 record in league games since joining in 1978. In the early- and mid-1990s, while the basketball team was on fire, the football team picked up energy with the so-called Desert Storm defense, which produced such future NFL stars as Teddy Bruschi. The Wildcat sports fervor spread to the football field for a while, but the team never had a Rose Bowl appearance and has gone 6-8-1 in the postseason.
This year, however, the football stadium is getting a huge new $5 million high-definition scoreboard, the biggest in the West. The school says the scoreboard will improve fan involvement—but not nearly so much as a few big wins would. – Stacy J. Willis
Football stadium proposals came and went as the university built a regional and then national brand in basketball in the 1990s. After the idea for UConn to play in the New England Patriots’ proposed stadium in Hartford collapsed, the state’s Legislature approved funding for the 40,000-seat, $56 million Rentschler Field, about 30 minutes from campus. The stadium opened in 2003; meanwhile, the Huskies transitioned from Division I-AA to the Division I-A in the early 2000s. Coach Randy Edsall, hired in 1998, remained for 12 years, creating momentum and stability. By 2004, its first year in the Big East, UConn won its debut bowl appearance (the Motor City Bowl). A win over No. 11 South Florida in 2007 earned the Huskies their first national ranking, making them the second-fastest team ever to attain a ranking after moving to I-A.
“Basketball was the front porch to the house we were building,” says Mike Enright, UConn’s associate director of athletics and communication. “It got us in the game. Basketball’s success allowed us to convince people that we could have success in other sports.” – Paul Szydelko
Not only did basketball-crazed Jayhawk fans get their first national title in 20 years in 2008, but the long-beleaguered Kansas football program won the Orange Bowl. That’s right, Kansas, a perennial doormat in the Big 12 Conference (last conference title: 1968), actually won the Orange Bowl. Kansas fans, long accustomed to basketball success, caught football fever as an undersize quarterback (Todd Reesing), an oversize coach (Mark Mangino), the pull of athletic director Lew Perkins and a little luck led the 12-1 Jayhawks to arguably their best season ever. While both Mangino and Perkins have since left Kansas in controversial fashion and last year’s team went 3-9 under first-year coach Turner Gill, game days in Lawrence are still more eventful than in the early 2000s. A recent multimillion-dollar renovation to Memorial Stadium, combined with a recruiting stronghold in Texas, should keep Kansas fans happy until the first basketball practice in October. – Andy Samuelson
The Wildcats have more wins (2,052) and NCAA Tournament appearances (51) than any other college basketball program, and their seven national championships are second only to UCLA’s 11. The school’s football program, though, has not fared as well playing in the tough Southeastern Conference. The Wildcats won a national football title in 1950 under coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, but they have just one SEC championship since then, being crowned co-champion in 1976. Despite their varying degrees of success, both programs are well-supported. Kentucky’s average basketball attendance last season (23,603) led the nation for the 15th time in 16 years, while football’s average of 66,070 last year ranked 25th nationally. – Sean DeFrank