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By Les Johns
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.