By Dick Gabriel
What neither Mitch Barnhart nor Tom Jurich could (or would) do, the Southeastern Conference has done with the press of a “send” button.
Word came down from on high (read: Birmingham) that because the most powerful conference in all of college sports wants it there, the annual Kentucky-Louisville football blood-letting now will be played at the end of the season, starting in 2014.
It had been the season-opener from its inception in 1994 and, predictably, was an immediate hit with fans across the Commonwealth. It helped raise awareness for the sport in a state that seemed to care only about basketball.
With direct and pointed nudges by Rich Brooks, UK succeeded in sliding the game, at least every other year, from Week 1 to Week 3. Brooks’ argument, of course, was that the game was too important to be played as a season opener, that he wanted more time to prepare what at the time was a thin squad, still recovering from NCAA sanctions.
U of L’s people, facing a dearth of marquee opponents on their football schedule each season, liked the added value of a summer’s worth of buildup to the game, which is why, after Brooks got his wish, the game remained as the season opener when the Cardinals hosted. When it was UK’s turn, they played in week number three.
Through it all, more than a few members of the Big Blue Nation were vocal about the notion of shifting the game to the end of the season, to have it mirror other rivalry games, such as Georgia Tech- Georgia, Oregon-Oregon State and Florida-Florida State. Thanks to Mike Slive and company, now they have their wish.
I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it, although with the change now in place, that’s roughly akin to screaming into a garbage pail:
I like the game as the opener. Why? I’m in the hype business.
When Bill Curry and Howard Schnellenberger got together and put this series in motion, one of their goals was to shift the focus of summertime sports chatter from basketball recruiting to football. Of course, back then recruiting (and the coverage thereof) was not the cottage industry it is now. Nor was there a guy named John Calipari in Lexington, putting together one incredible recruiting class after another.
But it succeeded. Talk shows that challenged hosts and callers alike to come up with something to discuss during the summer months had a built-in topic: UK vs. U of L football. Columnists, bloggers and message board attendees would ruminate on the subject as they counted the days until the game.
And it will be there in the future, but it will feature a different slant. The take from now on will be: Well, I guess we’ll just wait and see in November.
I’ve always considered a move to the end of the schedule a disadvantage for the Wildcats, although with Louisville’s impending move to the Atlantic Coast Conference, it might not be quite so pronounced.
Think about all those seasons we’ve seen the Wildcats limp, literally, through the final stages of a rugged season. However they open up, against whatever other affordable, beatable non-conference opponents are on the worksheet, they still find themselves staring into the teeth of what’s usually a brutal SEC schedule.
They haven’t had a winning conference record since the mid-70s, and the league just keeps getting better.
Now, when it’s over, they’ll still have a game to play, against their arch-rival. And while I recognize the fact that a win at that point over Louisville could make people forget about a rough season, I still believe it will be tougher for the Wildcats to stand up to the physical rigors of the SEC and then be ready to play their (relative) best.
Of course, Louisville has to play 11 games as well before facing Kentucky, and an ACC schedule (including, at times, Notre Dame) will be far more challenging than the collection of, uh, mid-majors the Cards have been playing of late. But as long as the SEC remains the standard for college football, I think fighting their way through the league, only to have The Big Game staring them in the face, will be a tougher challenge for the Cats.
The wildcard here is Mark Stoops. He’s the latest coach charged with making the UK program more than just presentable. He AND the BBN want it competitive. He’s already proven he can bring in talent; now, he and his staff have to find a way to assimilate the decorated players they’ve signed and become competitive in the SEC.
If they do succeed in the conference, where there has been only a modicum of success during the past six decades, only then will a season-ending matchup with the team UK fans love to hate become a nationally relevant game.
With so many others happening at virtually the same time, if it’s not a competitive matchup, it will become little more than a footnote.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th year with the UK TV and Radio network, and can be heard each Monday-Friday at 6 p.m. on The Big Blue Insider, on 630 WLAP-AM. )