In wake of loss, question arises again: Does UK benefit from U of L football series?

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By Dick Gabriel
Now that the Louisville game is in the books and we’re all much smarter, thanks to the benefit of hindsight, the questions are rolling in:
 Is the Kentucky defense really that bad?
 Sure the offense moved the football, but it scored only 14 points – will the Kentucky attack actually show improvement this year?
 Are there any more wins on the schedule?

Of course, there are many more queries, including a big one about the future of the head coach. But there’s one question that materializes like the dark clouds that circled Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium on Sunday, every time the Cardinals beat the Wildcats in football:

 Does this game really benefit UK’s program? And the inevitable follow-up: Louisville’s program didn’t seem to be much of anything until these two teams started playing again. Why should the Big Blue Nation play such a pivotal role in building Louisville’s program?

This issue, naturally, never arises in the sweet, giddy aftermath of a Wildcat football victory. But it was talk show fodder again during the past few days, both before and after the Cards’ 32-14 victory over the Cats.

The series helps only U of L, is the reasoning, and the relative state of the two programs is offered as evidence. Louisville is a Top 25 team (right now) and Kentucky is hoping (maybe praying) for a .500 season. The Cardinals are predicted to win the Big East championship; the Cats a near unanimous choice to labor in obscurity in the SEC. One fan base is excited; the other, depressed to the point of despair. One team’s stadium is agleam with expansion; the other’s is a monument to bureaucratic red tape in Frankfort.

It’s true. Right now, when it comes to football, Red is where it’s at. The people in Blue are blue.

But the argument that the series has helped only Louisville is valid only if you look at the series and underscore the phrase, "right now."

The same question posed at this time two years ago would have brought an entirely different answer, what with the Wildcats celebrating their third consecutive win over a Louisville team sinking fast under the doomed-before-he-arrived leadership of Steve Kragthorpe.

Broaden the periphery to include the entirety of the modern series and it’s easy to see that the series has helped both programs.

True, Louisville has come farther since the two teams began to play again in 1994. Since then the Cardinals have been to more bowl games, including the iconic victory over Alabama in the 1991 Fiesta Bowl (when U of L was extended an invitation to participate after other schools passed because at the time, Arizona did not recognize Martin Luther King Day), and their victory in the 2007 Orange Bowl.

But in the same time period, the Wildcats, who had played in just one bowl game since 1984, have appeared in five more. They’ve beaten traditional SEC powers Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and LSU, a Tigers team that was ranked #1 at the time and would go on to win the national championship. In each of the past two seasons, Kentucky has snapped losing skids -- to Tennessee, and to Steve Spurrier-coached teams.

The real question is, would either of these programs have improved this much without a series matching the in-state rivals?

Answer – possibly, but it would have taken longer.

It’s easy to make the argument that the trail has been easier for U of L. The Cardinals left the Missouri Valley Conference in 1975 and played as an independent for 20 years. That is to say, in what amounted at the time to college football’s version of the Witness Protection Program. Sure, Penn State and Notre Dame were independent powerhouses. Louisville? Not so much.

Then the Cardinals joined Conference USA, winning C-USA championships in 2000 and 2001. The nation yawned. The 2000 team finished 9-3 and was unranked by the Associated Press. In ’01, the Cards were 11-2 but only made it to #17 nationally.

They joined the Big East in 2005, Petrino’s third season at the helm, a year after the trip to the Orange Bowl. Wins were happening but nobody ever mistook the Big East for the SEC. At the same time, the Wildcats were fighting their way through what at the time was the toughest division in college football.

During the mid-2000s, Urban Meyer was doing his best work at Florida, Georgia won three SEC East titles and Tennessee turned in three 10-win seasons in four years. The Cats upset the Bulldogs in ’06, let Florida get away in ’07 and missed on more than one opportunity against the Volunteers. Clearly, they were getting better.

The relative success both programs have encountered has happened for a myriad of reasons, not just the fact that they circle each other like angry gladiators once a year. Howard Schnellenberger and Bill Curry realized that a game matching the two teams at the beginning of each season would capture the attention of fans at both ends of the interstate, so much so that summer time conversations might bend away from basketball recruiting (gasp!) and more towards football.

Schellenberger also was savvy enough to agree to play the first four games of the series in Lexington, knowing full well that the move would light a fire under Louisville boosters, who had been dragging their feet when it came to raising funds for a new football stadium. It worked.

In searing heat, Tim Couch and the Cats spoiled the dedication of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in 1998 as they blistered the Cards in a 68-34 victory.

But Schnellenberger’s program was well on its way.

Meanwhile, Kentucky limped through the Bill Curry years and then enjoyed a brief resurgence under Hal Mumme, on whose watch the UK program eventually was buried by NCAA sanctions. Only, consider what happened before the hammer fell: Mumme’s team played an entertaining brand of football (defense notwithstanding) that proved you didn’t have to employ smash-mouth football in order to finish north of .500.

The Big Blue Nation tore the goalposts down in 1997, after a milestone overtime victory over the mighty Crimson Tide. The following year, UK fans danced in the streets of Tampa on New Year’s Eve, and then the next day watched their team take on Penn State. In 1999, minus Couch, receiver Craig Yeast and the entire offensive line from the year before, the Cats actually played enough defense to win their way to a berth in the Music City Bowl in Nashville, where Wildcat fans feel right at home.

High school football coaches in Kentucky took note. They watched Mumme’s team, void of huge, NFL-caliber offensive linemen, march up and down the field. They realized that some of the athletic kids roaming their halls, who had cared only about basketball, might make darned good receivers, or pass-catching tailbacks. Interest in high school football across the Commonwealth began to climb, and so did recruitment of in-state players.

Rich Brooks defied the odds by cleaning up Mumme’s mess in only four years, leading Kentucky to four consecutive bowl appearances, using a pro-style offense that set school records along the way behind another Kentucky-bred quarterback who factored into early 2007 Heisman chatter, Andre’ Woodson.

Fans, however, live in what Rick Pitino calls the “precious present,” and they want to know, What have you done for me lately? The answer is, if you’re Joker Phillips, Not enough.

It was on his watch that the Cats finally beat Spurrier, and Tennessee. And until the championship game that followed the 2010 season, it was the Wildcats who played Cam Newton and Auburn the toughest. Like Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl, the Tigers needed a last-second field goal to win in Lexington.

But the unforeseeable attrition that wrecked what had been Brooks’ last two recruiting classes has caught up with Kentucky football. The roster has few talented veterans, but a lot of promising newcomers. It’s where Charlie Strong’s Louisville program was last season, a year that saw the Cards win seven games and make it to a bowl.
Of course, they didn’t have to run the gauntlet that is Southeastern Conference football.

Phillips’ squad likely will be an underdog in every SEC game in which it plays, meaning it will have to pull off a handful of upsets to pull its collective head above water this season.

So today, right now, it’s true - the Louisville program is in a more enviable position.

Did scheduling Kentucky play a hand in its progress? No doubt. But it’s likely U of L would have climbed to (relative) prominence as a member of the Big East, where football was an afterthought until teams started deserting the league.

Kentucky has benefitted from the added significance football has brought to the Commonwealth, thanks (in part) to the series. To really make it pay off, the Wildcats have to rip off another winning streak against the Cardinals.

Then the questions will stop.

(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and radio networks, and can be heard each Monday-Friday at 6 p.m. on The Big Blue Insider, on 630 WLAP-AM.)