If you saw any of this site’s Derby coverage over the weekend, you were privy to a number of pictures of UK football coach Mark Stoops with various celebrities. Stoops posed with Kid Rock, Randall Cobb and Eddie Montgomery as he took his first ceremonial lap around Churchill Downs as the newest UK football coach. But the picture above (tweeted by Stoops) is the one that was the most interesting to me and could have the greatest long term significance. Stoops posed above with one of Kentucky’s biggest donors, Joe Craft, who along with his girlfriend Kelly Knight, have become friendly with Coach Stoops and his wife since they have arrived in Lexington. Their friendship is not only paying dividends for the future of UK football, but it is showcasing yet another key element to what Mark Stoops is bringing to the table for the future. He is making Kentucky football a priority, often for many for the first time, to the Athletic Department’s biggest donors.
For years, the discrepancy between UK football donations and that for the basketball program has been astronomical. Some of this is not surprising. Kentucky basketball is engrained into the state’s fabric and has been the primary outlet for big donors for generations. But with all the success that UK basketball has had in cultivating donations that have made it the “gold standard” in college basketball, the reality is that UK football has lagged far behind in the fundraising arena. While there have always been loyal donors to the UK program, it simply hasn’t been a priority for many of those that have made large-scale donations (and earmarked those funds) to UK basketball. The product on the field is clearly part of this, but it is also because of a distinct lack of excitement/creativity in corralling these individuals. Whereas basketball has had showmen who are natural fundraisers such as Pitino and Calipari, along with nice guys who people love to be around like Joe B and Tubby, football has often had coaches that were of the gridiron-only philosophy. Most of the coaches at UK over the last few decades have been either unwilling or unable to press the flesh and lead fundraising efforts in a manner similar to the basketball coaches. Throw in the fact that most of the Athletic Directors over the years have seen basketball as the major fundraising priority (for understandable reasons), and football has consistently drawn the short straw in UK Athletics, even as it continued to produce the most money for the program.
When Mitch Barnhart arrived on campus, he tried to change that perception. He comes from a football background as AD and his goal early on was to try and raise money and help fund the dormant program. However Barnhart’s success in his football fundraising endeavors have been somewhat mixed. While he is an outstanding administrator of an Athletic Department and has done a tremendous job changing some of the structural features that have impeded UK Football growth (leading to the $125 million renovation of Commonwealth agreed to this Spring), it is an open secret that he isn’t the best fundraiser the world has ever seen. His relations with large-scale donors has been shaky at best (especially in the early days) and it seems that those part of his duties are his least favorite in the job. When John Calipari came to Kentucky, the twosome became a perfect team on the basketball side…while Barnhart dealt with administration, Calipari did what he does so well…fundraise at a high level. He cultivated UK’s highest donors, often through endeavors for the school and his own personal charities, such as Hoops for Haiti. Calipari was what football has never had…a figurehead who enjoyed the process of meeting the biggest and most influential moneymakers, making them personal friends and helping bring in large donations, such as the unmatchable Rupp Arena locker room.
Now UK Football may have finally found its figurehead to lead in a similar manner. While Mark Stoops is not as gregarious or outgoing as Calipari, over his first few months on the job, he has slowly changed the relationship that a number of big donors have to the UK football program. Built in part by the excitement of the fan base and in part because of his personal desire to reach out and bring in basketball folks to the football family, Stoops is helping make UK Football a funding priority. His relationship with Joe Craft is such an example, as he has helped cultivate Craft’s participation as a donor for the football program in a similar manner to his role over the years for basketball. His efforts have been so successful that just two months ago, Craft and Kelly Knight hosted a dinner in Louisville for Stoops, the purpose of which was to bring aboard some of the bigger donors to UK Athletics and specifically get them involved on the football side. Some made commitments of money for the future, but all were introduced to Stoops and to his vision of where UK football can go in the future. It was a huge step and the symbolism of it being led by Craft, the donor more known than any for his generous support of basketball, was telling to everyone involved.
The structural barriers to UK football success are many. However since Mark Stoops has arrived at Kentucky, he has set out to find a way to topple those barriers by thinking outside the box and approaching the problem in new ways. He has taken the weakness of Kentucky’s in-state recruiting base and altered its perception by attempting to change the boundaries of what is “Kentucky’s area” to include the heretofore forgotten Southern Ohio. He has taken the strength of the SEC, long thought to be an impediment to success, and has used it to recruit non-SEC areas, promising a chance to take on the best of the best, to those born outside the region. And he has now taken what was once considered a silly notion…the view that big-time UK donors would give money to the UK football program…and attacked it head on, by cultivating those individuals personally and selling his vision of what UK football can be. In so doing, he is creating an entire new base of influential UK football supporters, many of whom are now committed to helping the pigskin in the same way they have the roundball. This is a significant sea change and one that will likely pay significant dividends in the years to come.