Mark Story: UK's now-giddy fan base

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 8, 2013 

UK drew a record crowd for its spring football game five months after finishing a 2-10 season.

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To fully grasp the zeitgeist of the University of Kentucky sports fan base in summer 2013, Tom Leach says it is helpful to have a working knowledge of old-time western movies.

He is on to something.

In 2012-13, the three most high-profile UK men's sports — football, basketball, baseball — had brutal seasons.

The Wildcats football team went 2-10, lost all eight of its Southeastern Conference games and saw its head coach fired.

UK men's basketball started the season ranked No. 3 in the country in The Associated Press poll but went 21-12 and wound up in the NIT — where it lost to Robert Morris.

Kentucky's baseball team began the year ranked No. 8 in the country by Collegiate Baseball with people talking about the Cats making their first-ever trip to the College World Series. UK ended its baseball season losing 19 of its last 27 games and missing out on the NCAA Tournament entirely.

To rub salt into Wildcats wounds, hated intrastate rival Louisville has enjoyed a sports season for the ages in 2012-13. The Cardinals won the Sugar Bowl in football, claimed the NCAA championship in men's hoops and finished as the national runner-up in women's basketball. In baseball, U of L entered the weekend alive in the NCAA tourney, facing Vanderbilt in the super-regional needing two wins to earn a berth in the CWS.

In spite of all that, most Wildcats fans I encounter seem almost giddy over the state of UK athletics.

"There is a lot of positive buzz," says Leach, the radio play-by-play voice of Kentucky football and men's basketball who takes the pulse of the Big Blue Nation daily as the host of a UK-sports-oriented radio talk show. "It's the power of hope — and some really good recruiting."

What we are seeing right now here in Kentucky is a stark example of a fascinating sports phenomenon. The "temperature" of a fan base seems based far less on the tangible factor of how their teams have performed in the recent past than on the intangible perception of how people think their teams will fare in the future.

"What people think is going to happen seems more important to how they feel than what their teams have actually done before," said Oscar Combs, the founder and former owner of the UK fan publication The Cats Pause and a current member of the UK radio network pre-game show team. "I think that's definitely true right now for Kentucky fans."

The majority of Cats backers seem pumped over the new Kentucky football coaching staff of Mark Stoops and are expecting yet another lavishly praised John Calipari recruiting class to return UK to the top of men's college hoops.

Combs says the last time he remembers so much concurrent optimism for both UK football and men's basketball was in 1990, when Kentucky had just hired the New York Knicks' coach (Rick Pitino) to lead its hoops program out of the depths of a major NCAA scandal and then plucked the Alabama coach (Bill Curry) to guide the historically success-challenged Wildcats football team.

"People forget because of how (the Curry era) turned out how excited everybody was to hire Alabama's coach," Combs said.

In the here and now, Leach says UK fans have all but thrown out the slog of a men's hoops season that Calipari's Wildcats produced in 2012-13. "For Cal, his track record is as good as it gets," Leach said. "People see what happened last season as an aberration."

Football enthusiasm, Leach says, is based on both the excitement brought by a well-received coaching hire in Stoops but also on the torrid start that the new UK staff is off to in recruiting. "The fact is, they are recruiting at a level Kentucky hasn't recruited at before," Leach said.

Which brings us to the old cowboy movies.

Leach says he and ex-Wildcats hoops standout Mike Pratt, the color analyst on UK basketball radio broadcasts, often compare the current environment of major-college sports to what you'd see in westerns.

"If things are not going well for a coach, if the fans can look to the hills and see the cavalry coming to the rescue, they will hang in with you," Leach said. "But if they look to the hills and don't see reinforcements on the way, well, things get pretty antsy."

After a horrid season for UK in the three most visible men's sports, most Kentucky fans seem to be hearing trumpets in the distance — sounding the call to charge.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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