Mark Story: Lack of UK-Louisville opener limits pre-season hype

Lack of UK-U of L Opener limits Hype

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 30, 2011 

Mark Story

On Sunday, when the Lexington Herald-Leader put out its 2011 college football preview, the two most read stories on our Kentucky.com Web site were an article about possibly renovating Rupp Arena and the weekly University of Kentucky men's basketball notebook.

Earlier this month, some 38,000 people in Lexington and Louisville combined attended exhibition games between a foreign national team coached by John Calipari and some summer-vacationing NBA players from UK.

A couple of weeks ago, the University of Louisville's current men's basketball team played exhibition games against two Bahamian pro teams of such dubious quality they might have had a difficult time winning the Kentucky state high school tournament — yet the games were broadcast live by a Louisville TV station.

After the all-hoops, all-the-time summer of 2011 in Kentucky, is there anyone who cares about promoting college football in the commonwealth who doesn't now see why the Kentucky-Louisville football game needs to be our state's annual season opener?

It's been some five years since UK, at the insistence of then-coach Rich Brooks, balked at what had been the modern tradition of Kentucky-Louisville starting each college football season.

Since 2007, the game has continued as the opener when played at Louisville but has been played as the second or third game when in Lexington.

As a result, the world has not ended. Whenever it's played, The Governor's Cup rivalry is one of the most anticipated games of the college football season in our state.

Yet I think we've seen this summer what college football in the state of Kentucky risks losing when the game is not our state's season opener.

When then-athletics directors C.M. Newton (Kentucky) and Bill Olsen (Louisville) signed the contract to begin the modern UK-Louisville football rivalry with the 1994 season, the belief was that playing the game as the opener had two prime benefits for football in our state.

First, it gave our state's main rivalry a chance to attract national media exposure that it could not get later in the college football schedule when it would have to compete against more established teams playing each other.

In recent years, that premise has been proven true.

Since 2006, when the UK-Louisville game has been the opener, it has been telecast on the main ESPN ('06 and '08) and on ABC ('10). When Cats-Cards has not been the first weekend, it's been broadcast on ESPNClassic ('07) and ESPNU ('09 and '11).

The second advantage to playing The Governor's Cup first — and the more important in my view — was that it was designed to keep college football in the forefront of the state of Kentucky's sports consciousness throughout the off-season.

Part of the lack of football buzz this season is that Louisville lost more than 25 seniors off its Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl championship team last season. Another part is that UK left a sour taste from last year by playing horridly in the BBVA Compass Bowl. The Cats also lost almost all of their offensive stars from 2010.

Meanwhile, the anticipation around the upcoming basketball seasons at both UK and Louisville is higher than Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Which is exactly the kind of environment that playing UK-Louisville football as the season opener was designed to cut through.

At least moving around the UK-Louisville game on the schedule in recent years has served one good purpose. It has reinforced the fact that where a game is played on the schedule does not, as a rule, benefit one foe over another over the long haul.

In the past four years, UK-Louisville has been the season opener twice, been the second game once (with both teams coming in off an open date) and the third game once.

Kentucky has won all four games.

Going forward, with the SEC expected to add Texas A&M and, likely, at least one more school, the challenges for UK football within its own league figure only to get more daunting.

If Louisville aspires to move to a conference with a more secure hold on the status of a major football league than the Big East, it too will need to elevate its program.

So it should be self evident that both UK and Louisville need to do everything they can to promote football in this state.

After the commonwealth's hoops-obsessed summer of 2011, can anyone seriously argue that returning our state's marquee college football rivalry to the season's first weekend on an annual basis would not be a big step in that direction?

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