So I have posted on here a few times over the last 12 years, I know Drew Franklin has posted about it, and I know many fans agree. I have argued that I would much rather Kentucky become a college football power consistently even if it meant a dip in the yearly dominance of the basketball team. I understand that many have such a history with the basketball side of things and such a tortured history with the football team that they would find this almost blasphemous. But my viewpoint has always been two fold: I enjoy the sport of college football more, as does the South. And the nationwide popularity of college football (and the funds attached) far exceed those in a sport like college basketball with a much smaller overall fanbase.
Now of course over the last 50 years there was no reason to be a bigger UK football fan than basketball. The team didn’t give you any real reason to do that. We weren’t ever competitive in our league sans the occasional exceptional season, the stadium was crap, the weather stunk often, the talent was lacking. But now there is an undercurrent brewing in Lexington that tells me that there might be just the ever so slightest window of opening for Mark Stoops and the UK football program to match the passion and excitement that decades of basketball success has created. Here is why on the football side:
- For the first time in modern UK history, there isn’t a game on the schedule that UK can’t win. Let’s be honest. Even in our best years in the 1980’s and 90’s, there were games we had no chance in. Florida and Tennessee every year. Georgia most years. Hell, even Louisville wasn’t winnable for a stretch there. Now, every game is realistically winnable. The talent gap has closed between Kentucky and the top tiers of the SEC to the point where the Cats are winning games they never have before, and in places that they never win. Now, with that said, UK has still lost games they shouldn’t the last couples years and that stunts the excitement some. But whereas in past years the UK fanbase was gone by November because Tennessee and Georgia were at the back end of the schedule and Florida already trounced us and there wasn’t any reason to watch, now every game is worth watching.
- Is an SEC East title actually winnable. Of course it is! Haters wanna say no but the correct answer is yes. Nobody is saying it is likely but it has NEVER been more likely than right now. And that fact alone can keep a fanbase.
- Think about the talent that has come through Lexington in just the last 3 years. Boom Williams. Benny Snell. Lynn Bowden. Countless defensive stars. The depth of talent right now is the best in UK history and I will stand by that forever. Fans can see that. No longer do we just try to ride a guy like Tim Couch and a bunch of 2-stars to wins. Now, we actually have “SEC Talent”. Much like the basketball talent gives us chances in each NCAA Tournament. The football talent opens up possibilities that have never existed.
Now, it isn’t just football that plays a role. I think developments in the basketball program play a role too. For instance:
- Cal’s “act” is starting to wear thin for many. When you are going to Final Fours regularly and putting guys into the Top 10 of the NBA Draft, people will deal with almost any message the coach gives. But UK hasn’t been to a Final Four in 5 years. Could they have gone this season? Maybe. But this wasn’t a classic roster by any means and if you have to speak honestly, the odds were this team was more likely not going to the Final Four this year. Either way, having a chance each year is nice but UK isn’t cashing in on any of those opportunities right now. So when Cal and his shtick continue on as if it is 2015 and that “everything is OK”, fans are not stupid. And they have been treated like they are for a while now. And you can feel there is some frustration.
- The yearly exodus from Lexington has always been a sore spot for many. But how do you stop Anthony Davis and John Wall and Karl Towns from going? And you can’t hate on Harrisons from going either considering how accomplished they were in 2 years. But when a team like this year loses EJ Montgomery and Kahlil Whitney to the draft, when neither guy did anything of significance and the team didn’t do anything of note either, fans start to question the system. And I don’t see Calipari realistically changing. I don’t think bringing in Jacob Toppin suddenly changes what the program is all about. So if the Final Four drought continues and the Final Fours don’t return, fans will start to become prickly.
- The changing television landscape and what a schedule looks like matters. People are have shorter and shorter attention spans and that isn’t changing. Asking them to spend one day a week for 13 weeks for 3 hours to watch football is one thing. Plus the game times are always great. And 9 of the 12 games every year are conference or Louisville, plus a bowl. Over 75% of the schedule is interesting. Basketball times are crap, during the week, and the schedule is generally pathetic. So it’s becoming harder and harder to get fans to show up in person or watch on TV when the schedules don’t match people’s personalities anymore.
Now I’m not dumb. I will emphasize again that this window of opportunity for football to match or surpass basketball in interest in very small and requires a number of things. It requires Mark Stoops continuing to be here, recruit at the level he has, and winning 9-10 games a year. No small task. And it requires basketball to continue to miss Final Fours and players to head out the door unexpectedly yearly. Also not something that is a guarantee. If UK starts finishing in the Top 5 and making the Final Four every other year, then basketball remains king no matter what football does.
But my argument is never in my lifetime, and likely never in any of yours, has football inched as close to basketball in popularity at Kentucky. And as a guy who has always wished this would become a football school, I will be interested to see if Mark Stoops is able to break through that ceiling or not. Or hell, how about we just win the SEC East and also go back to the Final Four and be an equal power in both.