We’ve heard the “players first” mantra over and over since Calipari and company moved into Lexington. In the context of our basketball program- a profitable, high-exposure, year-round behemoth filled with crazed fans and ritual couch-burnings- a players first program means no promises about playing time, teaching players to work as a team at the risk of sacrificing individual success, and most significantly with Cal, helping players make the right decisions about their future professional careers. In short, putting the players’ best interests at heart. But could this mindset also apply to UK’s football program- a vastly different situation?
The first two pillars of “players first”- working for playing time and learning to achieve as a team- still apply. When you’re consistently projected to be at the bottom of the SEC totem pole, there’s no room for egos, and working together smoothly on and off the field is even more crucial to the team’s success.
The third is a little trickier. Kentucky football doesn’t have the elite reputation or proven results needed to assure recruits that we can send them on as first day NFL draft picks. We don’t need to sell our school based on how well we can prepare you for the next level of professional play (although that would be a helpful bonus). Instead, like Joker said a couple weeks ago, we need to sell our school on the fans. Fans are the best recruiting tool we have right now, and for the football program to succeed, the fans need to put the players first- meaning that no matter how we may feel about the coaching staff or athletic department, we support the players.
In this sense, “players first” should be a motto all our fans adopt as we gaze into the upcoming fall and wonder what we can expect from this year’s team. We may end up with a record under .500. We may lose to Louisville. Hell, we may lose to Western Kentucky. But through it all, the fans need to put the players first and support them through the inevitable ups and downs. Joker said it best at the football kickoff luncheon: “Get behind this team. It’s your team… These players don’t need everybody to believe in them but they damn sure need someone to. They need you. I expect you to get behind this team.” If that’s not putting players first, I don’t know what is.
The players first model has been wildly successful for UK basketball as of late, and with a little bit of a twist, it can work for football too. All we need are the fans.