No major conference affiliation not a concern for Collins

This year, the Southeastern Conference is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Most of UK’s varsity athletic programs are affiliated with the SEC and enjoy the prestige and name recognition that comes along with one of the NCAA’s premier conferences.

One team that doesn’t get that recognition is the UK men’s soccer team.

Since their inaugural season in 1991, the UK men’s soccer team has played in several other conferences that some might consider “mid-majors” in other sports. But despite the lack of credit for their conference, currently Conference USA, head coach Ian Collins is very satisfied with quality of competition in the league.

“We’re very grateful to the Conference USA for giving us a great place to play,” Collins said. “We hope to continually perform near the top of what is one of the top three or four soccer conferences in the nation.”

The SEC does not sponsor men’s soccer because only two of its members, UK and South Carolina, have varsity men’s soccer programs. The Gamecocks also play in Conference USA.

The journey from the Cats’ charter season has been a long one.

The Cats played their first season in 1991 as a Division I independent. In 1995, they began playing as an associate member of the Mid-American Conference.

However, Collins and UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart sat down a few years ago and began discussing moving from the MAC to a new conference.

“The MAC was starting to become a bit unstable,” Collins said. “Some of the members of the conference had soccer programs that were in question and the conference was in danger of losing its automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.”

When UK was invited to join Conference USA as an associate member for men’s soccer beginning with the 2005 season, the Cats decided that the timing was right for a change, a move Collins has never regretted.

Although the team doesn’t gain the widespread popularity that a conference like the SEC promotes, Collins is more focused with developing his team, not the conference.

“Sure, it’d be nice if schools like Florida or Tennessee had soccer programs but I don’t really think about that,” Collins said. “The state of Kentucky has some very strong soccer programs at the high school level. We try to concentrate on what the state of the sport is, not what it isn’t.”

Even though the SEC is regarded as one of the strongest sports conference in the NCAA, the level of competition is hardly forfeited for the Cats’ soccer team just it plays in Conference USA.

“Our schedule is among the toughest in the country,” senior forward Aaron Swanson said. “Teams like Southern Methodist University and Tulsa are elite programs and we know we can play at that level.”

In this week’s National Soccer Coaches Association of America rankings, Conference USA has two teams in the top 25: No. 3 Southern Methodist University and No. 23 Tulsa.

Collins thrives on the tough play of the conference.

“We haven’t been here long but we know that the move to Conference USA was a great move for the school,” Collins said. “We are very happy to be playing in such a strong conference.”