Cawood Ledford had caught me by surprise.
It was a few minutes after yet another frustrating UK loss, this one at Georgia in 1989. Once again, the Wildcats had blown an opportunity to spill one of the SEC’s Big Boys; instead, they couldn’t get out of their own way and had lost, 34-23.
I was in my first season as sidelines reporter for the UK radio network. Cawood and Ralph Hacker had nearly finished their post-game analysis when the Voice of the Wildcats addressed me, something he rarely did during that particular segment of the broadcast.
“Gabe,” he asked, “what are your thoughts on this…flameout?” He had to pause to find the proper term but, as usual, he had nailed it.
A sportswriter friend had just walked past me and invoked the name of a fictional character, one I had instantly recognized from a course I had taken in (believe it or not) Greek mythology at UK.
Mythological Greek figures each had their respective place in the universe, with their back-stories designed to teach us life’s lessons. It seemed the ancient Greeks wanted us to know what might happen to us if we didn’t live pure and prudent lives. They seemed to enjoy creating stories about folks who screwed up and spent eternity paying for it.
That’s why I recognized the name of this particular character, and compared his lot in the eternal afterlife to UK football:
Sisyphus. Dude messed up, big time, and the gods made him pay.
Sisyphus seduced his niece, took his brother's throne and betrayed the secrets of Zeus, along with a LOT of other nasty stuff. His penalty: Spending eternity rolling a huge rock up a huge hill. Just as he seemed to reach the top, the rock would roll over him, all the way back down to the bottom, and he’d have to start again.
Millions of UK fans could queue up right now, pound their chests and yell, “I AM Sisyphus!” and not a soul could blame them. But Rich Brooks wants you to know, he’s on the job.
Prior to the Alabama game, Brooks was asked about a faction of fans who voiced their frustration following the Florida loss; they seemed to believe the UK coaches were satisfied with break-even seasons and lower-level bowl games.
“They obviously don’t listen to what I’ve been saying,” Brooks said. “We are clearly not satisfied, and we won’t be until we have a lot more SEC wins in our belt.”
It didn’t happen for the Cats against the Crimson Tide, and they’ll be underdogs at South Carolina. And unless Kentucky pulls off an upset at USC or Auburn, the Fellowship of the Frustrated Fan will rise in full throat again.
Many invoke the “B” word: Basketball, in a variety of ways.
Why can’t football be as successful as basketball?
Why doesn’t the administration care about football the way it does basketball?
Will we ever win a Southeastern Conference championship, the way we do in basketball?
They want it all, and they want it now. Lord knows, they’ve waited long enough on football. But back-to-back-to-back bowl victories don’t seem to be enough (even though ONE would have been manna from heaven five years ago).
They know what the Big Time feels like. They’ve been there, done that – thanks to the round ball, the one that bounces properly – not the pointed one that bounces every which way.
But the folks who believe basketball’s success should be a simple enough blueprint aren’t, it says here, thinking clearly.
How miserable has it been the past four seasons, when the only relevant moments surrounding mighty UK basketball have been news conferences introducing new head coaches? The arrivals first of Billy Gillispie and then John Calipari have been the only times Kentucky basketball has been national front page news since the Wildcats bowed out of the 2005 NCAA tournament, following the incredible overtime loss to Michigan State.
Big Blue fans long for the days when their team ran roughshod over every other school in the SEC. They not only visited the mountaintop, they LIVED there, for a long, long time. And they LIKED it. Kentucky was Zeus; the SEC, its Mount Olympus.
Other schools, most noticeably Florida, evicted UK and have taken turns setting up shop as basketball kingpin of the league. They like it, too.
Of course, Calipari has given UK fans cause to believe they will rule the league again – but that doesn’t mean the other guys will stop trying. However, they realize the 5,000 pound gorilla just might be waking up. And what makes it such a beast?
The answer is simple. Getting there, not so much.
Kentucky has won the most games of any D-1 team in the country, more SEC and national titles than any other SEC school. It has facilities, media interest and fans unmatched in the conference.
Other teams want what Kentucky has, and they’re working hard to get there. Only, now that Calipari is bringing top-notch talent back to Lexington, the job just got a lot tougher. Kentucky had backed up to the rest of the pack. Not any more. It’s at a full sprint again, daring the rest of the league to catch it.
And that’s what Big Blue fans need to understand. The same standards to which they hold their beloved basketball program apply at virtually every spot in the SEC. Think Florida, Tennessee and Georgia in their own division. Now, mix in LSU, Alabama and Auburn in the West. In the past decade, even Arkansas and Mississippi State have won divisional football titles and played in the SEC Championship Game.
In other words, when it comes to football, nobody is backing up in the league. Even Vanderbilt is getting tougher, and the Wildcats only beat the Commodores half the time as it is.
Does the administration care about football? You’d better believe it. There’s gold in them thar’ victories. ESPN’s new deal with the league has ensured a nice TV payday each year. But more football victories mean more tickets sold and fewer complaints when the inevitable price hike arises. And perhaps more importantly, victories fuel a willingness among fans to donate more, an area where Kentucky is woefully behind other SEC powers.
Will football ever be as successful as basketball? Probably not. Calipari breathed new life into basketball with a just half-dozen players all too willing to become part of one of the grandest programs in the history of the sport. Football takes far more players, and it’s a tougher sell to recruits, especially when you’re trying to talk them OUT of signing with the aforementioned SEC football powers.
And those schools are NOT going to back up. There’s too much at stake.
Ron Zook didn’t get much time at Florida; when it became clear he wasn’t going to come anywhere close to matching Steve Spurrier’s success rate, he got the boot and the call went out to Urban Meyer.
Did UK fans honestly believe their counterparts at Tennessee were going to stand idly by and watch the Volunteer program slide into mediocrity?
Alabama broke the bank by signing Nick Saban, and it’s paying off. Tide fans already are paying top dollar for football tickets, and happily so. Kentucky fans screamed blue murder when their ticket prices went up – for BASKETBALL, their source of joy.
Will there ever be another SEC football title at Kentucky? Yes, it says here.
Two years ago, Kentucky had an offensive attack that could play with anyone in the country. It got there by bringing in the right recruits. With a few breaks, the 8-5 team of 2007 could have won 10 or 11 games (yes, I know, it could have LOST eight or nine, too). There just weren’t enough quality players on defense to match the offense. But the gap had closed, if only temporarily.
And so, too, has the overall gap closed between UK and other SEC football powers. The Florida game stunk, sure enough, but the Cats were much more competitive against an Alabama team though could go on to win the conference title.
So maybe the Wildcats ARE pushing a rock up Mount Southeastern Conference. It’s already rolled back down to the bottom this season, but still, they can put their shoulders behind it and work their way back to another bowl victory. And, hey – those are fun, aren’t they?
By the way, Cawood Ledford’s response to my mythology-laced analysis?
“We’re up here talking about duckies and horsies, and he’s talking about Greek mythology…”
As always, perfect.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m.ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)