News | , , ,


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?

Recent Stories from Mark
  • Will

    Mark, wouldn’t the call come down to the SEC schedule? Maybe I am wrong, but I thought If the SEC adds 2 more teams, Louisville would be dropped from the Kentucky schedule. The strength of schedule would mean Kentucky needs a high percentage win game out of conference. I like playing Louisville every year and the Cats are on a come back with Stoops, but it won’t make sense then. That’s the challenge for playing in the SEC.

  • Carter_Burger67

    It’s an excuse for UK. You don’t see Georgia dropping Georgia Tech, Florida dropping FSU or South Carolina dropping Clemson because of the new schedule, do you? Instead of building a program like Louisville has done, Barnhart would rather pitch a fit then take his marbles and go home. That’s fine. While UK continues to sink into the abyss of the SEC, U of L will start it’s climb to prominence in the ACC.

  • kenhardin

    Mark, i think the game means more to U of L in recruiting than you perhaps estimate, in terms of getting top-flight instate recruits, Mac Brown still gets a ton of Texas recruits, but he didn’t get Manziel or RG3, and those high-level misses hurt overall recruiting in and outta the state, as well as overall mojo, etc. The UK series has helped (not locked up) U of L get the Quicks of the world, and that is pretty important.

    Thanks for the piece!

  • Ingsoc

    No, they aren’t. Its pretty clear. Clearly Louisville is the program with something to lose in this series. They are the program battling for BCS position on a regular basis. UK has never been in that position.

  • Mark Coomes

    Will — The SEC is contemplating a move from an 8-game schedule to a 9-game schedule, not from 8 to 10.

    If the SEC goes from 8 to 9, it will strictly be a money-grab maneuver done to appease their broadcast partners/paymasters, CBS and ESPN.

    Chasing dollars has distorted the geographic and emotional map of college football badly enough already, seems to me. It has killed great, long-standing, common-sense rivalries like Texas-Texas A&M, Oklahoma-Nebraska and Missouri-Kansas (which was the second-longest rivalry in the nation).

    I’d rather not see the fun & popular UK-U of L rivalry get trash-canned as well.

    If it is, the reasons will be just as I outlined. UK is admitting that it needs to schedule maximum cupcakes and that U of L is no cupcake. It will be backing down from competition. Not good.

    Look — If UK can’t make a bowl by scheduling two walkovers, taking its chances with U of L and at least go 3-6 or 4-5 in the SEC, it doesn’t really deserve to go bowling.

    Job 1 for UK isn’t dodging U of L. It’s to get better at football — good enough to actually earn its fat check for being an SEC member. Right now, it’s paid to be a punching bag. If UK fans are cool with that, enjoy.

  • Mark Coomes

    Mack Brown didn’t get RG3 or Johnny Football because he and his staff are nincompoops. They wanted to move both guys to DB. Ditto for Jameis Winston, who’s tearing it up at QB for Florida State.

    Any success U of L has enjoyed in football has been powered by Florida recruits, not Kentucky recruits. Just look at the roster now and under Schnellenberger.

    However, since Schnellenberger got the program moving in the right direction, U of L has bagged its fair share of top in-state recruits, particularly from Louisville, where most of the top recruits come from.

    Before U of L got good, top Louisville recruits spurned UK regularly. Will Wolford went to Vanderbilt. Jeff Ellis to Ohio State. Kurt Barber (Paducah Tilghman) went to USC, as did a lineman whose name I can remember a few years ago. St. X sent several top guys to Notre Dame.

    As I said in the piece, I seriously doubt that guys like Teddy Bridgewater and James Quick were swayed by U of L beating Kentucky, an SEC dreg. Bridgewater aside, I don’t think local kids are all that impressed by beating UK. But they like casting their lot with a program that in their conscious lifetime has won the Orange and Sugar Bowls.

    It beats making serial visits to the Music City Bowl, that’s for sure.

  • Chuck Wilson

    Nice piece. Can’t really argue with any of it, with one small exception – Notre Dame isn’t a football member of the ACC, while they are a scheduling partner …. But that’s being picky. UK football fans have always been legends in their own delusional minds. Which fits the mindset that celebrates men’s basketball recruiting championships as much (if not more than) as actually winning championships on the court. They may be big brother — but we must be adopted then, because we bear no resemblance to the big blue.

  • TheParisGuy

    I totally agree with this piece.
    Kentucky isn’t going to play any competitive school it isn’t forced to.
    My father played at UK in the early thirties, and I’ve attended games in Stoll Field till now.
    Until Kentucky gets an athletic director who is football minded, wants to actually COMPETE in the SEC things aren’t going to change.
    Seeing what’s been acomplished at Louisville should make any program’s fan base take notice.
    As long as Jurich continues to make the right moves, and Kentucky settles for the ‘next year’ approach, nothing is going to change.
    Wonder if Tom keeps napkins in his pockets to sign new coaches?