Mark Story: Has the annual game between Louisville and Kentucky raised the quality of football in the commonwealth?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 16, 2011 

Self-interest brought the University of Louisville into its modern football rivalry with Kentucky. By initially agreeing to play all games in Lexington until U of L could build a modern football facility of its own, the Cardinals' brass found a powerful tool to leverage Cards boosters to donate for a new stadium.

Four years after UK-U of L resumed, Papa John's Cardinal Stadium opened.

Self-interest brought the University of Kentucky into the modern football rivalry with Louisville.

By agreeing to play an annual intrastate rivalry, UK launched a football series that would matter to its fans and provide a victory (unlike many of Kentucky's long-running SEC "rivalries") with some regularity.

Playing U of L helped create the demand for tickets that, within six years, allowed Kentucky to expand Commonwealth Stadium, too.

Yet when UK and U of L announced on June 25, 1993, that they would resume a football rivalry that had been dormant since 1924, there was a bigger goal in mind: Elevating the game of football at all levels in the hoops-mad commonwealth.

On the eve of the 18th modern football renewal of Cats-Cards, has the UK-U of L series had the positive impact on the overall state of football in Kentucky that was predicted?

Most football people in the state — but not all — say the series has provided an overall boost to the sport in Kentucky.

"There's no doubt about it, no doubt about it, (the UK-U of L rivalry) has clearly helped high school football," says UK Coach Joker Phillips. "It's gotten a lot of excitement into high school football."

Dale Mueller, longtime head coach at traditional high school state power Fort Thomas Highlands, is glad UK and U of L play each other.

"But I don't think the fact they play makes too much difference in our guys deciding to play high school football," Mueller says.

More schools playing football

To the extent it is possible to measure statistics about football in our state since the UK-U of L series resumed, they form a mixed picture.

On Sept. 3, 1994, when Kentucky bested Louisville 20-14 in Game One, there were 209 high schools in the commonwealth that played football.

With UK and U of L poised to meet again Saturday night, there are presently 221 high schools in our state that play football.

When Jeff Speedy (Cats) and Marty Lowe (Cards) started at quarterback in 1994, 18 of Kentucky's 120 counties had no high school football at all.

As QBs Morgan Newton (UK) and Will Stein (U of L) prepare to face off Saturday, there are now only 11 counties in the commonwealth without high school football.

In 1994, when Bill Curry (Cats) and Howard Schnellenberger (Cards) matched coaching wits, there were a combined 26 Kentuckians — 19 for UK; seven for U of L — on the competing teams' two-deep depth charts (not counting kickers).

As Phillips (UK) and Charlie Strong (U of L) prepare to face off as head coaches for the second time Saturday, there are a combined 26 Kentuckians — 16 for UK; 10 for U of L — on the competing teams' two-deep depth charts (not counting kickers).

At the time of the 1994 Kentucky-Louisville football game, our state had chosen eight Mr. Football winners. Of those eight, six signed with major-college football programs. From those six, four (66.7 percent) stayed instate to play college football.

Since the 1994 UK-U of L football game, there have been 16 Mr. Footballs, 15 of whom attended what we now call FBS schools. Of those 15, only eight (53.3 percent) signed with in-state schools (although three that went out of state transferred back and played at Kentucky major-college programs).

Debating the game's impact

The biggest advantage for football in the commonwealth that has come from the modern UK-U of L rivalry is that it allows the sport to command center stage from one end of Kentucky to the other.

"It sure raises a lot of interest about football in this state," says veteran Boyle County High School Coach Larry French. "To me, that's the main thing (the series) has done."

Mike Glaser, the long-time St. Xavier head coach, says transferring the passion of the UK-U of L basketball rivalry to football has had a huge impact inside Jefferson County.

"I'm sure in most of the state, it's basically UK," says Glaser of fan allegiance. "But up here, it's a war and things go back and forth between the fans (of both schools). And I think having that has made football overall a bigger deal."

Owensboro High School Coach Joe Prince, a former Kentucky offensive lineman, says the biggest impact the UK-U of L series made on the game of football in the state came in the late 1990s. That was when Hal Mumme brought his Air Raid attack to Lexington and John L. Smith matched that at Louisville with some gun-slinging offenses of his own.

"To me, those two guys, that period in time, changed the way high school football was played in Kentucky," Prince says. "People really started throwing the ball. Look at the quarterbacks we've turned out (since then)."

Some football people believe that the UK-U of L series has been one factor in getting some of the top high school athletes in Kentucky to choose football as their college sport rather than basketball.

Tim Couch, Michael Bush and Andre Woodson to name three were high school basketball stars who could have chosen that sport for college but made the decision to go gridiron.

"There are more college scholarships in the state of Kentucky for football than basketball," says longtime Henry Clay High School Coach Sam Simpson. "I think the UK-U of L game, because it became such a big deal, may have helped some kids see that."

However, Highlands' Mueller says factors other than the UK-U of L rivalry have more to do with the growth of high school football in Kentucky. Among them, Mueller says, has been the return of spring practice and the expansion to six classes by the KHSAA.

Losing luster?

Interestingly, in its 18th modern renewal, the atmosphere leading into the 2011 Kentucky-Louisville football game has been a bit tepid.

The past summer was pretty much all hoops all the time in the commonwealth. It may be mostly about a bad economy and a high ticket price, but Saturday's UK-U of L football game has yet to sell out.

So 18 years in, Kentucky and Louisville playing football may not have revolutionized the game in the commonwealth. It is hard to argue that it hasn't substantially helped football in this state.

Kentucky assistant coach Greg Nord is about to coach for the second year in the rivalry for UK after spending the prior 15 seasons on the Louisville staff.

"I've been on both sides, and it's all been upside for football," he says. "It's been good for high school football. There's something for everybody to talk about. It adds excitement to both schools. It's been a good thing, I think, for everybody."

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com.

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