There’s a lot of excitement about the beginning of the Mark Stoops era at Kentucky. Stoops has brought new life into the program and is already recruiting at a level we have not seen before, especially in such a short time. Kentucky fans are talking football right in the middle of basketball season, and for once KENTUCKY football is the talk of the town in early January instead of just our SEC brethren playing for another BCS title. Za’Darius Smith, Asiantii Woulard, Ben Bradley and Jaleel Hytchye are getting as much attention as Coach Cal’s recruits on the hardwood. If you would have told me this is the way things would be several months ago, I wouldn’t believe it, but that’s not all I would not have believed.
I also wouldn’t have believed several months ago that Louisville would not only receive an invitation to the ACC, but that they would also keep Charlie Strong from taking a job at Tennessee, then go on to upset Florida in the Sugar Bowl, and then get a commitment from James Quick a few days later. Everything seems to be going right for Kentucky since Stoops has arrived, but everything is also going right for our in-state rival. There is no escaping the fact that Louisville is building a program that should be a consistent winner that Kentucky will have to compete with on the field and on the recruiting trails. Is it possible for two strong football programs to co-exist in Kentucky at the same time, or is there just too little in-state talent to support two winning programs?
History says that this state is only big enough for one winner on the football field. When Bobby Petrino was at Louisville, Kentucky for the most part struggled. The fortunes of the two schools reversed when Petrino left for the Falcons. Louisville proceeded to hire Steve Kragthorpe and Kentucky stuck with Rich Brooks, and the result was 5 straight bowl games and 4 straight wins in the Governor’s Cup for the Cats. In 2011, everything changed when Charlie Strong beat the Cats and denied them of what would have been another six-win bowl appearance. As we all know, 2012 spiraled out of control as the Cats finished 2-10 in the last year of the Joker Phillips era and Louisville won the Sugar Bowl.
The trend of only one of the two schools succeeding at the same time is nothing new. In the history of both programs, the 2006-07 season is the only year in which both teams have won bowl games in the same season (UK defeated Clemson in the Music City Bowl, UL defeated Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl). Furthermore, the two schools have only played in bowls in the same season five times ever (’93, ’98, ’99, ’06, and ’10). The point is, Kentucky has had the most success in football when Louisville’s program has been down, and vice versa.
So what is so different now? Will Kentucky be able to succeed with Charlie Strong at the helm in Louisville? If Stoops quickly elevates the UK program, will Louisville begin to decline? The key to both programs will be to recruit at a high level outside of the state. Past Kentucky and Louisville coaches have relied heavily on Jefferson County and other top in-state talent. When UK has been on the upswing, they’ve recruited well in Louisville. When UL has been winning, UK has struggled recruiting in Louisville. If both teams are winning, the key to survive will be the ability to recruit nationally at a high level. Charlie Strong has proven he can do this and Mark Stoops is doing it very well so far.
If each coach can maintain success at their respective schools, perhaps each school’s achievements can develop into a benefit to all, making for a better rivalry. A better rivalry means more excitement, more exposure, more money, and ultimately better players for both schools. Can it happen? Can Kentucky and Louisville football co-exist, and each win at the same time?