UK football’s blueprint to success

President Eli Capilouto talks to the team at spring football practice in Lexington, Ky., on Wednesday, March 28, 2012. Photo by Tessa Lighty | Staff

By Les Johns
ljohns@kykernel.com

After Andre Woodson hit Stevie Johnson in the end zone to give the Cats a 43-37 lead in the third overtime… after Braxton Kelly stopped LSU’s Charles Scott’s fourth-down run… and as fans stormed Commonwealth Stadium to celebrate the upset of the nation’s No. 1 team… after all that, something truly memorable happened.

As my 14-year-old son and I fought the crowd to reach the field, he turned to me excitedly and said, “Dad, these season tickets are the best thing you have ever bought.”

That was father-son magic, and a sentence I will never forget.

For UK football fans, 2007 was magical. Stevie got loose as the Cats shocked top-10 ranked U of L, they upset the eventual national champion LSU Tigers, hosted ESPN Gameday and were even in the BCS rankings.

That was a mere five years ago.

Fans don’t believe season tickets are a great purchase now, hence the monumental decline.

Assigning blame for UK football’s descent into sub-mediocrity is pointless.

The UK football program can be turned around with a dedicated team approach to securing financing, upgrading facilities, stabilizing the head coach position and giving the program the tools to succeed in recruiting.

Anything short of this effort would be waving the white flag of surrender.

Secure funding
UK Athletics is self-sustaining, pays its own way and even contributes money back to academic causes. It can be trusted to borrow the funds needed to properly renovate Commonwealth Stadium, but current regulations prevent that.

UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart, university President Eli Capilouto and legislative leaders need to come together to make this work.

Even if it takes an “outside the box” approach, there should be no barrier for the athletic department to invest money in the football program that will generate revenue for both athletics and academics.

This project should not be a detriment to Capilouto’s goals around the rest of the campus, including improving university dorms. The athletic department has the revenue and cash flow to make this work. It just needs to be unshackled.

Kentucky Senate President David Williams told Matt Jones of Kentucky Sports Radio earlier this year he would be inclined to support UK football projects specifically detailed in a bonding proposal. Barnhart, Capilouto and the legislature must work together to get this accomplished.

Upgrade facilities
UK football facilities need to move from the bottom of the SEC pack to near the top. The program has been begging for a recruiting room since the last years of former head coach Rich Brooks. Training and practice facilities also need an overhaul to get to elite SEC level.

The biggest upgrade will involve Commonwealth Stadium and the addition of luxury boxes. This will be much more of an investment than a static expenditure. These boxes will bring corporate and community leaders to campus several times a year, giving both Barnhart and Capilouto access to potential donors.

It is imperative for the football program, at some point, to find its own “Joe Craft” – someone who loves UK football enough to help pay for some facility upgrades. Money follows winning programs, so until the team performs better on the field this type of person will be difficult to find.

Stabilize the head coach position
It is hard to see a scenario where Joker Phillips is retained as head coach for 2013. If Phillips is somehow able to rally the team to bowl eligibility, then he would deserve another year. Doing so would mean four SEC victories, which has happened only once (2006) in the past 12 years. In the unlikely event Phillips can lead the Cats to wins over the likes of Mississippi State, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Tennessee, then he will have earned another year.

If there is a change, then Barnhart needs to open up the department coffers and bring in a coach that can generate legitimate excitement to a program that desperately needs a spark. Ranking last in the SEC in coaching salary is fantastic if you are getting wins on the field. It isn’t such a great statistic when you have a combined six-year conference record of 16-32.

Recruiting budget
Bloomberg reported in March that UK basketball spent $434,095 in 2010 for recruiting. It has 13 scholarships on its roster to fill, and spent $33,391 per roster slot in 2010. That same year, UK football spent $279,006 in recruiting. It has 85 scholarship positions to fill and spent $3,282 per roster slot in 2010.
When you consider the lack of in-state D-1 talent and the regional disadvantage the Cats have, the recruiting budget has to increase to become competitive in the SEC. There may not be that much of a difference between Florida’s No. 5- and No. 9-ranked cornerback, but if you can’t get down there to target, scout and recruit that player, it is meaningless.
The football recruiting budget must increase – substantially. To compete in the talent-rich Southern states, Barnhart should be prepared to at least double or triple the current budget.

Fan involvement
It will take a coordinated team effort for all this to come about. None of these solutions are as simple as just flipping a switch.
Fans should be both persistent and patient. Continue to let the athletic department, the president’s office and the policy makers in Frankfort know that UK football is important to you. The Cats have traditionally been a top-25 school in terms of attendance. The fans have supported the program through thick and thin all these years.
Give Barnhart and Capilouto an opportunity to fix UK football and hopefully in a few years your children will tell you that the season football tickets your purchased were the best thing you ever bought.

Marc says:

Great article Les – you have squarely put your finger on where we are, where we can go and what it will take to get us there.

Maybe a good place to start would be with Dr. Capilouto who in a recent interview stated UK’s football facilities we’re SEC “mid tier”. Perhaps someone can enlighten him into what they have at places like UT, Arkansas, Florida and South Carolina and what they are building at Texas A&M and even Mississippi State – that is if he even cares.

One last point I would make, the football program is a revenue producing activity that supports other non-revenue producing sports and academic needs as well. As a businessman the last thing you want to do is to negate your most profit producing activity in favor of other activities that produce less profit or none at all. So notwithstanding the moral basis of upgrading and supporting our football program, that should be done for the sake of the state, the Alumni, and the fans, neglecting the football program is a downright stupid business decision.

Fecesforbrains says:

Wow the article is spot on!! The recruiting budget for football is meger. I would hazard a guess the recruiting budget at lex cath is competitive with uk and certainly trinity and st x. If one were to look at the kids that play high school football on scholarship at High priced perochial schools, jobs given houses rented etc I’m certain they have many of their scholarship kids with more than 3300 invested. The uk recruiting staff must stay in motel 6 and eat at the golden trough when out of town recruiting. That recruiting figure is embarrassing. Rich Brooks was lied to about facility upgrades and then it went to if we do this or that for basketball we can but y’all some new grass seed. The time is now and fan involvement is key, we as taxpayers need to remind the folks in charge it’s our university and our football team. There has been some flashes of that statement with season tickets being down 10k plus.. Saturday’s game needs to be viewed by those who travel from Columbia and the players parents ban parents and cheerleader parents. That would be a statement.
Joker, I loved him as a player and an early recruiter not so much as oc just not sure he’s HMFIC material. But with the financial light being shed he may not even have practice dummies or sleds to
Use .. Perhaps he should be coach of the year for even fielding a team. God speed To You Joker I take back every bad thing I have ever said about you.
Coach replacement ? Kind of reminds me of an inheritance deal now.. Older folks do without scrimp save don’t have flat screens new cars or in some cases no microwave die
And leave their kids a couple million and it’s soon burned up. If all this glory and money is spent and a top flight name is drug in here he will have the luxury that so many before him have not had. With that said don’t drag a thug like petrino in here or taggert get a name a proven manager if you can’t manage your personal sex life how can u manage 115 boys and their academics and athletics and sex lives?? Taggert he’s win some games at wku but hasn’t beat any real teams.. Go for the name cause in our microwave society we have to have a name that the true D1 players know..that is the key to getting players.. Along with rabid fan base and money to go see them and a nice place to sleep and a unbelieveable place to dress and practice and a taj mahal to play in .. Well there’s my opinion like buttholes everyone has them most of them stink ..

Tcat says:

All are valid points but the odds any of this happens is about as likely as getting hit by a thunder bolt… We have never had a president or AD that displayed a true desire or commitment to our once climbing football program at least since I’ve been a fan…

Brooks was such a good coach, to bad he never got the support he deserved. Just imagine if our in state perception was like Scar’s and we could sign all out top talent plus land kids like Dupree and Sweat from GA!… I bought season tickets (until this year) for 5 years but I really feel like I’ve been ripped off. I won’t be back until our university gets on board and quits looking for a bargain because they aren’t fooling anyone the money is there…

Ed Turley says:

Article is right on and I along with many more have a hard time understanding why Ky administration can’t prioritize the football program when it can pay for the necessary enhancements, etc. There are no negatives and it would no take any funds from Basketball. Actually basketball should assist with paying for other sports so that football can move up the ladder more quickly.

Rick Kennedy says:

Love this article.
By the way, UK needs to bring back the “We Believe” chants from 2007. Never understood why that was a one year thing. An expression of support and optimism – something we need around the football pgm!

Bradley Cotten says:

Great article…totally agree on all points…especially when you consider that football usually funds an entire athletic department…and Mitch B has done a great job turning UK into an entire Athletic Department with great strides in sports such as Women’s Basketball, Baseball, soccer and Olympic sports, so the time is now to cement his legacy by finding a way to get our football program to the top…and in closing I want to say that Joker Phillips is a class act who represents his program well and I would like nothing more for him to be the guy that leads us to SEC prominence but if not I know we all wish him and his staff well and thank them for their hard work