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Mark Coomes: Is Big Blue yellow when it comes to playing U of L?

by Mark Coomes


UK AD Mitch Barnhart is ambivalent about playing U of L in the Governor’s Cup.

College coaches and athletics directors are big on commitment.

They want commitment from their fans, their players, their recruits and from each other.

ADs hope successful coaches stay committed to their contracts. Unsuccessful coaches pray ADs do the same.

Yet University of Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart pointedly and persistently refuses to commit to continuing the Governor’s Cup, the annual football series between UK and its cross-state rival, the University of Louisville.

“I think it’s a good game to play for our state, provided that it fits all the parameters for our program,” Barnhart told The Courier-Journal’s Tim Sullivan last week

Mitch Barnhart when he's not talking about playing U of L.

Mitch Barnhart when he’s not talking about playing U of L.

“I’m not trying to couch it or be coy. … But at the end of the day, my job is to protect the long-term best interests.”

That is true. And I admire Barnhart for being honest about his ambivalence. It would be easy to tell people what they want to hear right now then just reverse field when the contract comes up for renewal in 2016.

Still, something tells me we’re not hearing the whole story behind Barnhart’s reservations. He won’t come right out and say it, but Barnhart appears to be thinking along the lines of former UK recruiting coordinator Tommy Limbaugh, who tweeted the following last week:

I was at UK when decision made 2 play Cards & my position was it would help Cards. UK had everything to lose & nothing 2 gain. Take a look!

Let’s do that.

Any clear-eyed look says this: When the rivalry rebooted in 1994 after a 70-year hiatus, all UK had to lose was the perception that it owned the better program.

For many years, it actually did. But the scale started to tip when U of L hired UK alum Howard Schnellenberger while UK stuck with Jerry Claiborne, then hired Bill Curry. By 1991, when the Cards cleaned Alabama’s clock in the Fiesta Bowl, the worm had turned.

Twenty-two years later, it hasn’t turned back.

I covered UK during the Limbaugh-Curry era and I heard all the arguments against playing U of L. There were only two:

  • It will hurt recruiting.

  • It will hurt our stature.

It was then and is now a coward’s argument. Because it only hurts if you lose. And if you truly own the superior program, you won’t lose very often, will you?

But UK has. It’s 8-12 against U of L since the series resumed. It lost for the third straight year on Saturday, 27-13.

As for recruiting, please.

Kentucky high schools don’t produce enough Division I talent for a rivalry game to tip the balance. UK and U of L have roughly split the state’s recruits for years. The Wildcats have 32 Kentuckians on its roster this season; the Cardinals have 31.

Top prospects in Florida, Georgia, Ohio and such aren’t swayed by the result of a state rivalry among teams with such low national profiles.

When Strong recruited Bridgewater and the rest of the junior class that beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl and has lifted U of L to a No. 6 ranking, the Cats had beaten the Cards four straight. I doubt Bridgewater knew or cared.

On the field, where it’s been put up or shut up, UK hasn’t lived up. Not to its SEC pedigree or its more distinguished tradition.

To wit: UK is 5-12 against coaches not named Steve Kragthrope.

Louisville has earned top-20 rankings in the final AP poll five times in the past 12 years. Twice U of L finished No. 6.

The Cardinals didn’t do that by playing – and usually beating – UK. They did it by hiring better coaches. By recruiting better players. By playing eight bowl games, winning five, including the Sugar and Orange.

If UK backs out of the Governor’s Cup, it won’t hurt U of L one bit, not with the Cards moving to a conference that includes Clemson, Florida State, Miami and Notre Dame. It will only hurt the fans – on both sides.

It will only make UK look chicken.

I don’t want that. I’ve always pulled for UK football, except when they play Louisville. I want UK to keep playing. And I want UK to face facts.

The illusion of superiority has been shattered. Little Brother is better at football. He’s proven it on the field, with and without you.

If the SEC goes to a nine-game schedule and that’s used as an excuse to mothball the Governor’s Cup, this will be the new perception of UK football:

It’s scared.

It’s admitting that it needs to max out on the cupcakes to keep its historically faint bowl hopes alive.

It’s admitting that Little Brother is no cupcake, which might be the deepest cut of all.

It’s admitting that, contrary to the groundless opinions of Limbaugh and much of BBN back then, UK never had “everything to lose.” What had it ever won against U of L – on the field, where it matters?

It’s admitting that, given the chance to decide this issue on the level, it lost 12 times in 20 tries … then quit.

You’re better than that, UK.

Aren’t you?


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