UK football notebook: Nightmare trip has happy ending for recruiters

Herald-Leader staff writerFebruary 1, 2014 

  • Tough ticket?

    Student ticket averages for the past six seasons based on information released to the Herald-Leader by UK:

    Year        Avg. student attendance

    2013         6,884

    2012          4,575

    2011         7,154

    2010          8,129

    2009          7,689

    2008          7,599

When Mark Stoops said his new Kentucky staff was willing to go the extra mile for top recruits, he apparently wasn't kidding.

But he thought two coaches on his staff were kidding when they called to tell him their recruiting travel nightmare story from early this week.

UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown and offensive line coach John Schlarman both got stranded as a part of the epic ice and snow storm that hit the South on Tuesday.

"It's funny now, but it wasn't funny then," Brown told the Herald-Leader this week, without discussing the commitment or his school's name, per NCAA rules.

"It was eventful. It was a recruiting story that will be told many, many times."

The coaches' travel disaster turned out to be a good thing.

The extra time with the coaches — who spent the night sleeping a couple of hours on training room tables at the high school — sealed the commitment of Spain Park offensive lineman Jervontius "Bunchy" Stallings.

Brown and Schlarman's journey started off typical enough with a rental car at the Birmingham airport at 10:30 a.m. The trip to the school, which should have taken 20 minutes, turned into an epic, eight-hour adventure.

"We couldn't really turn around," Brown said. "No hotels; all the hotels were booked. So we just said, 'We might as well keep going toward the school because we can't turn around anyway.'"

Seven hours in their rental car, they inched on frozen highways with stalled vehicles and accidents all around them until they reached the only road to the high school.

When they finally got to that road, police told them it would be closed for several more hours.

So Brown and his offensive line coach pulled into a nearby office park and parked their rental car. They changed out of their dress shoes into tennis shoes (the only other shoes they had) and walked the rest of the way to the school.

"We weren't really ready for a mile walk in the ice," said Brown, who had a light-weight coat with him for the trip.

Schlarman slipped on the ice but wasn't injured, although Brown said his ego might be bruised for a while after some friendly ribbing.

When they got to the school, there were 500 or more students stranded there. They ate dinner in the school with everyone else (think school cafeteria pizza).

Stranded there for the night, Schlarman and Brown "slept on training room tables for a few hours" before getting up at 4 a.m. with Shawn Raney, the school's football coach, who drove them back to their rental car on a golf cart in winds of 20 miles an hour and 10-degree temperatures.

The Cats coaches still didn't know they had gotten Stallings until after they'd left the school. He's expected to sign this week.

The 6-foot-3, 305-pound offensive lineman who chose UK over Mississippi State, said the coaches walking that last mile to his school in those conditions made him want to pick the Cats.

"That was a big part of my decision," Stallings told AL.com. "I just felt real comfortable with them after they did something like that."

Is the turf always greener?

One of hundreds of things that Kentucky will be pondering as it moves forward with a new $45 million practice facility is whether or not to change the playing surface at Commonwealth Stadium.

It was something brought up unsolicited by UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart as he discussed how the new facility will impact some of UK's current ones.

"We'll have to make the decision: Do we go to turf in the stadium, in the game-day stadium, in Commonwealth or do we stay at grass?" Barnhart asked aloud.

He argued that it might be in UK's "best interest" to install turf at the stadium, per a discussion with Stoops, who would like to start using that facility more to better prepare his teams to play there. Turf means less maintenance and it suffers less wear and tear with the extra use.

"I think it might be in our best interest to be turf in the stadium, indoor turf and two grass practice fields," Barnhart continued. "It gives us lots of options in terms of practice."

According to the UK athletics website, UK installed the stadium's current Bermuda grass playing surface in 2005. It's had several upgrades since the stadium opened.

If Kentucky were to move to a turf surface, it would be one of just five Southeastern Conference programs to do so. Other schools with synthetic surfaces include Arkansas, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Missouri.

The field at Florida State, where Stoops coached most recently, had a Bermuda grass field.

Tough ticket for students?

When Kentucky released its plans for Commonwealth Stadium renovations, which included the school's student section being cut in half, one would expect some sort of student revolt.

That didn't happen.

Not a single student called to complain to the student government.

"No. Not one," confirmed SG President Roshan Palli said.

Under the new stadium plan, the student section will go from roughly 10,000 seats (including the band) spread over several sections on the northeast side of the venue to somewhere around 4,500 seats (including the band) in the east end zone of the facility.

"The feedback from students actually has been positive," Palli said. "We're getting more lower level seats than we've had before."

When UK was making its stadium plans, officials said they based the size of the student section on attendance the past few years and went from there.

"For right now, students in no way are upset about the changes, they're quite excited about them actually," Palli said. "But in a few years' time, I think there will be another discussion to be had about the size of the student section as attendance rises again."

Based on numbers released to the Herald-Leader via open records request, it's going to be a much tougher ticket for students wanting to get into the stadium when renovations are complete.

There's only been one season in the past five where there were fewer than 5,000 students on average at a game. And last season, there was an increase in student attendance from 4,575 the year before to 6,884 in Stoops' first season.

'All Broncos fans on Sunday'

Three former Kentucky standouts — linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan and tight end Jacob Tamme — will suit up for the Denver Broncos on Sunday in the Super Bowl.

Perusing their quotes from the week of media leading up to the event revealed a few interesting tidbits.

Woodyard, who had three 100-plus tackle seasons, was asked if it was more gratifying to be at the Super Bowl as an undrafted free agent: "It was just more motivation to go out there and prove myself that, hey, you can play and prove everybody else wrong."

Trevathan, who led the SEC in tackles in each of his final two seasons, talked a lot about learning to become a leader this season.

"I grew up," he said of this season. "They gave me the headset to talk to the team. I learned you have to be a man in that huddle. ... If I make a mistake, we are going to make it 110 miles per hour."

This week as he was discussing the future of Kentucky football and the new $45 million practice facility likely coming in 2016, Barnhart said it was special to see Tamme, Woodyard and Trevathan in the Super Bowl.

"I hope they have a championship ring" at the end, Barnhart said. "That's what they've worked their whole lives to get to is those kind of moments, and they're all deserving guys. They've been unbelievable representatives of this program."

Before meeting with the media, Barnhart told the school's Board of Trustees members: "To be real honest with you, we're all Broncos fans on Sunday."

A big blue passing

Was saddened to hear of the passing of Dr. William Wheeler this week. He was connected to the Kentucky athletics program in one way or another since the 1950s, first as a four-year letterman and All-American from 1951-1954 under Bear Bryant and Blanton Collier.

The Pikeville native also served as a team orthopedic surgeon for many years and was a longtime UK athletics supporter and K-Club member.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Email: jsmith3@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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