John Clay: Mitch Barnhart can't duck restless UK football fans for long

A.D. won't be able to duck restless fan base for long

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 26, 2011 

UK President Eli Capilouto, left, talked with athletic director Mitch Barnhart as UK defeated Western Kentucky on Sept. 1.

MARK CORNELISON | STAFF

I had barely finished asking my question before Mitch Barnhart corrected me.

The occasion was the press conference last February announcing the UK athletics director's raise and contract extension.

My question, however, had to deal with the growing disgruntlement among Kentucky football fans.

Barnhart quickly objected to the word "disgruntled," saying that when he arrived, before the four straight winning seasons and the five straight bowl appearances, that's when the fans were disgruntled.

I've got news for him: If they weren't disgruntled over the summer, they are disgruntled now.

You can tell that not just from the normal message-board griping or the radio talk-show ranting.

You hear it from the neighbor who attended football games for 40 years, until this year. You hear it from the friend who now tailgates with his buddies at Commonwealth Stadium but refuses to pass through the turnstile. You hear it from the acquaintance who stops you to voice his opinion that Kentucky football is headed back to the Bill Curry days.

In one statistical regard, that's true; Saturday night when Florida whipped the Cats 48-10, the visiting Gators rushed for the most yards (405) against a Kentucky defense since 1994. Curry was the coach in '94. Kentucky went 1-10.

Barnhart has already heard enough, apparently. On Saturday's pre-game radio show, the UK AD said he had stopped reading emails or taking phone calls from fans upset about the direction of the football program. His standard line is that those fans have short memories.

But football isn't fixed. The five straight bowl appearances were built on the backs of a soft non-conference schedule and a plethora of post-season choices. In those five bowl years, Kentucky was 14-26 in the SEC. The Cats still haven't beaten Florida since 1986, Tennessee since 1984. The program has not produced a winning conference mark since 1977.

"This is a tough league, we know that," Joker Phillips said last week.

The UK football faithful want to know what's being done. They're questioning administrative commitment.

With the team struggling, die-hards can't help notice the brand new $7 million Wildcat Coal Lodge for basketball being built right next to the $30 million Joe Craft Center for basketball, while Mayor Jim Gray's task force decides whether the city should build a new downtown arena — for basketball.

They heard their old head coach, Rich Brooks, go on the Joe B. Hall and Denny Crum radio show recently and complain again about broken promises.

"I was there, and I was told that we were going to renovate our stadium, have a recruiting room, have club seating and do all the things that all the other schools in the SEC have," Brooks said on the show. "That didn't come. It got mired up because a new basketball arena and new baseball stadium were thrown into it, and it was just too big of a number."

Barnhart points to the new field turf for the football practice field, the new locker rooms at the stadium, the new lights in the Nutter Field House, the new meeting rooms at the Nutter Training Facility, the new video boards at the stadium.

Then again, those club seats that Brooks talks about, they need fannies, as C.M. Newton used to say. If UK can't get this season back on track, when the Cats return home to face Jacksonville State on Oct. 15, the crowd could be half the size of Saturday's announced attendance of 65,134.

That might make an athletics director disgruntled.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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