- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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The SEC schedule is about to change. It has to. With new members Texas A&M and Missouri joining in 2012, the league seems likely to expand its regular season hoops schedule to 18 games, which is a rather large chunk of any program's yearly allotment.
This presents unique problems for Kentucky. The Wildcats are already committed to the made-for-TV Champions Classic, as well as the fledgling Big East/SEC Challenge. Then there are the Cats' traditional rivalries -- Indiana and Louisville -- as well as its thrilling home-and-home agreement with North Carolina.
In late November, UK coach John Calipari realized that an expansion of the SEC schedule might mean sacrificing one or more of those commitments. But which one? How would Kentucky fans feel about losing a game with Indiana, a long-standing rival, or Louisville, the hated neighbor? And what about UNC? Or the Champions Classic?
So Calipari, as is his wont, took a decidedly novel approach. In late November, the coach explained the situation on his website, CoachCal.com, and asked UK fans to vote on which rivalry game they'd be willing to sacrifice:
What I mean by that is this program is too important to over-schedule based on the roster turnover that I believe will continue to happen. You cannot put this program at risk, not with our turnover and roster. You CANNOT over-schedule and put yourself in that position. With that being said, here is where I want the help of the Big Blue Nation. If we had to -- and this doesn’t mean we have to at this point because we still have 16 league games -- but if we had to drop one series and there were no other options, who would it be? Would it be North Carolina, Indiana or Louisville?
Kentucky fans, perhaps unsurprisingly, voted overwhelmingly in favor of eliminating the long-standing home-and-home series with Indiana. The Hoosiers received 69 percent of the vote. North Carolina got 23 percent, and Louisville got eight percent. Apparently, Kentucky fans are none too keen on losing that rivalry with Louisville. And why would they be? UK-UL is one of the best and most heated rivalries in all of sports, let alone college hoops.
In any case, on Wednesday Calipari updated his Big Blue Nation Twitter followers -- all 1,144,620 of them (which is insane, by the way) -- with his take on the voting results:
We put up that poll to create dialogue & the #BBN delivered. That's what makes our fans so special. They are passionate about everything.
I'm the originator of playing anytime, anyplace, anywhere. I just want flexibility in our scheduling to modify based on our roster.
Dropping 1 annual H2H series allows me to schedule more neutral site games like the KU, Duke, MSU classic. U wanna play 'em, we schedule 'em
Our current format, if we play 2 more SEC games, makes it harder to mix in more quality teams. Trust me, u won't be disappointed. #WeAreUK
The important takeaway here is nestled in that third tweet: "U wanna play 'em, we schedule 'em." Whatever UK's schedule looks like in the years to come, Calipari's ability to galvanize his fan base -- in this case not just galvanize but actively involve it in a process that typically never sees the light of day -- is what has made him perfect for the Kentucky job. UK has the kind of fan base that demands constant engagement. Big Blue Nation considers itself a vital part of what makes Kentucky basketball what it is. Guess what? Big Blue Nation is right.
Calipari's recognition, and the foresight he's used in adapting social media and the power of the crowd in something as seemingly minor as prospective scheduling decisions, would make any fan base feel closer to its program. Hey, you, random Kentucky fan: You have a say in our schedule, too. What do you think?
This is minor stuff, but it's palpably powerful. It may just be the wave of the future. And it's hardly a shock to see Calipari get there first.