The comparison was inevitable, the moment Kentucky won its eighth NCAA basketball championship: Why can’t football get it done the way basketball does? Bring in a big-named, high-powered recruiter and fill the roster with four- and five-star players, then wait for the championships to pile up.
Of course, it doesn’t work that way. If it did, you’d see a massive bidding war among college football wannabes. It takes a tapestry of circumstances to make a college football program attractive to a prospective head coach:
The capability to pay, and pay big;
The chance to win the same way – big;
Facilities, good enough to compete for recruits with any other school;
Rabid fan base;
When it comes to basketball, Kentucky has all of those, in a huge way, which is why John Calipari wanted the gig. He made it a point of saying, whenever anyone would ask, “Memphis is where I want to be.” The unspoken caveat being: “Until Kentucky calls.”
When it comes to football , UK is still, uh, a work in progress. The head football coach makes decent money, and we’ve seen the Wildcats pull off the occasional upset. But they haven’t competed for a Southeastern Conference championship since the mid-70s.
Facilities are literally a work in progress – and there isn’t much work being done right now. Mitch Barnhart has listed repeatedly the needs for the football program, and has described his frustrations with virtually having to pay cash for everything.
The fans are here, ready to be rabid. But take a look at the last item on the list – tradition – and you’ll know why that hasn’t quite happened yet.
So while we’re talking basketball versus football, and how to get it done in both, let’s think for a moment about what it might look like if basketball suddenly had to deal with the challenges football has, when it comes to corralling players.
John Calipari, or so it seems, can set his sights on whichever player he wants and make him a Wildcat. It’s not that easy, obviously, but it’s happened often enough to show he clearly has the touch. And it’s not just because he’s “Coach Cal;” he was the same guy at Memphis, and he attracted quality players, but nothing like the bounty he’s enjoyed in Lexington.
And it’s not just because it’s UK. Billy Gillispie was here just long enough to indicate he was heading down the wrong recruiting trails. None of the players to whom he promised scholarships walks tall on the college basketball horizon right now. Tubby Smith’s recruiting broke down in his final two years, which helped cause double-digit losses each season.
Calipari has done a remarkable job bringing in players. And he’s been fortunate – they’ve stayed healthy (except for Jon Hood), they’ve stayed (period) and they’ve played. The one exception has been Stacey Poole. Considered one of the top 30 high school players in the nation, Poole struggled to earn minutes on a UK team that could have used a shotmaker. To the surprise of few, he transferred out, landing eventually at Georgia Tech.
So Calipari hasn’t had to deal with some of the challenges they’re facing over on the south side of campus. Rich Brooks’ last two recruiting classes and Joker Phillips’ first were rife with players who didn’t pan out. They disappeared because of academics, lack of playing time or injury. The UK football signing class of 2010, Phillips’ first, totaled 27. Already, 11 have left, including highly-rated players such as linebacker Tim Patterson and tight end Alex Smith.
What if the same sort of thing happened to Calipari, or any basketball coach? What if you sign five players, and two of them simply can’t play and another becomes injured. Any hopes for a trip to the Final Four?
Gary Henderson’s baseball Wildcats found out what can happen when even the most highly-regarded recruiting class craters. UK was credited in 2009 with having the nation’s fifth-best list of baseball signees. That class never materialized; three years later, when they should have been talking College World Series, the Cats finished 25-30.
Football recruiting is far more an inexact science than baseball and basketball, for obvious reasons. There’s no way of knowing if a kid who physically dominates at the 12th-grade level will keep doing the same every year. And, like it or not, AAU basketball gives recruiters the opportunity to see the nation’s most highly-touted players clash with each other.
The difference is – and it’s huge – one great player still can change the fortunes of any quality basketball program. Two can prompt your fans to start squirreling away money for a trip to the post-season. Three? Assuming they get along and play well together, well, they can make history.
It takes dozens of players, arriving every year, to make it happen in football. And even though you’re bringing in around 25 per year, if you’re Kentucky, you can’t make many mistakes.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 23rd season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)