It is no secret that television is the great matchmaker in collegiate sport these days. Games are made, games are switched, rivalries are created, for and by television. Today at 2 p.m. (WRC-TV-4) the No. 1 team in the nation, North Carolina, will play the No. 2 team, Kentucky.
The reason they will play is television. Each school will net more than $100,000 from the game, between the guarantees they have received from the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., where the game will be played, and TV. Six figures for one regular-season game.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Carolina and Kentucky played regularly, usually in early December. But in 1976, after losing three of four to the Tar Heels, Kentucky dropped the game.
"They told me they thought they had enough tough December games with Indiana and Notre Dame every year," Tar Heel Coach Dean Smith said. "I had made either an eight- or a 10-year deal with Adolph Rupp in the '60s. He said he wanted something long-term because he was tired of teams calling him up to play only when they had good players.
"But Cliff Hagan and Joe Hall told me they had enough December games, so we stopped."
Hagan, the athletic director, said: "The game had become so tense and the competition (the outside games against Indiana, Notre Dame and Kansas) was such a tense situation, we decided to cool it for a while."
But last spring, television entered the picture.
It was April. North Carolina had finished second in the national tournament and had an outstanding recruiting year. Kentucky had been upset early in the tournament, but would have everyone back from a team that had been in the top five most of the season.
A perfect TV match.
"With the kind of teams we knew they had coming back, plus the prestige the two schools have, it was a great matchup," said NBC's Rex Lardner. "We definitely wanted to match them, so we called both athletic directors to propose a two-year series, one game at each place."
Lardner called Hagan and John Swofford, North Carolina's athletic director. Each talked to his coach. Smith said, fine, we'll play the first one at our place. Hall said, fine, we'll play the first one at our place. Neither was willing to budge.
"So we decided to go for a one-shot deal and try to come up with a neutral site," Lardner said.
Smith's idea of a neutral site was Greensboro, N.C. Hall's was Louisville. That wasn't going to work.
April became May and May became June and it was beginning to look as if there would be no game. Then, Lardner received a call from Les Unger, who was putting together the college basketball schedule for the Meadowlands Arena, which was opening this fall.
"We called just to let Rex know that if by some chance they were trying to put together a blockbuster and the site was a problem, we were available," Unger said. "We definitely wanted to get involved. We think college basketball is really coming on and we're committed to it. When we talked to Rex, he said that as a matter of fact he was trying to match Carolina and Kentucky and having trouble.
"We solved the problem with money."
Big money. Unger admits the Meadowlands has guaranteed the schools more than $50,000 each. Informed sources say the figure is between $60,000 and $65,000. "I'm not sure, but it may be the biggest guarantee ever," Unger said.
By comparison, North Carolina received a guarantee of about $20,000 last Saturday when it played Rutgers in Madison Square Garden. According to MSG sources, that is about as high as it can afford to pay a college team. The Meadowlands can offer much higher guarantees because it is a tax-exempt organization and because its union labor costs are lower.
"The Meadowlands was the perfect solution in this case," Lardner said. "The only risk at that point was matching two teams so far away from where they are located."
But with the teams ranked 1-2 going into the game, a sellout of more than 19,000 fans is expected. "I don't know why people make a big thing of who is 1, 2 or 3 in December," Smith said. "But they do."
Smith in fact, has argued that his team should not be No. 1. "Not when we don't have (Al) Wood (Pete) Budko or (Mike) Pepper and Kentucky has everybody back," he said. "With our schedule we won't stay No. 1, anyway. This kind of game is good, though, because it helps prepare us for the ACC regular season. It should be competitive. At least I don't think Kentucky will blow us out."
The last, of course, is Smith's famous needle. He won't admit it yet, but this may be his most talented team with James Worthy, Sam Perkins and the exceptional freshman, Michael Jordan, leading the way. Jordan has taken more shots than anyone else on the team, unheard of for a UNC freshman.
"But that's just because people concentrate on Worthy and Perkins so much that he's getting great shots," Smith said. "He's never seen so many open shots in his life."
Carolina has been destroying good teams all month, routing Tulsa, South Florida, Rutgers and Southern California. Only Kansas, in the opener, was able to test the Tar Heels. Kentucky has been almost as impressive, especially in its romp over Indiana early this month. It also received a scare from Kansas, winning in overtime.
Hall, never satisfied with his team, worried about its "lack of killer instinct" after the Indiana game. The Wildcats are still without injured 7-foot center Sam Bowie, but have gotten excellent play from Melvin Turpin in his place.
Whatever the outcome, everyone goes home richer and the fans are happy to see the teams play.
What about next year?
"We'd love to have them back," Unger said. "I guarantee we'd make a place on our calendar for Carolina-Kentucky."
"If we can get them together, it would be terrific," said Lardner.
Usually, in college sports, whatever TV wants, it gets.