Mark Story: For UK football fans, days of blind loyalty seem long over

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 1, 2014 

There were fewer seats available due to renovation at Commonwealth Stadium. Kentucky defeated Tennessee-Martin 59-14 on Aug. 30, 2014.

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Kentucky announced a crowd of 50,398 in Commonwealth Stadium for its season opener Saturday against Tennessee-Martin. In the 42 years Commonwealth has been open, it was the fourth smallest crowd ever for a UK home opener.

There were game-specific reasons that may have contributed to the smallish gathering on hand to see UK display an array of promising young playmakers in a 59-14 pasting of UT-Martin.

It was a steamy day that featured the threat of rain. The contest included an opponent from the FCS. Commonwealth Stadium is in the midst of a $120 million renovation project, and the construction has made logistics around the venue challenging. Perhaps biggest of all, the Kentucky football program entered 2014 having gone 4-20 (0-16 SEC) in the past two seasons.

It is also true that all the factors that have attendance under pressure in myriad U.S. sports — high ticket prices, bad economy, more attractive games available at home on high-definition TVs — also apply here.

Still, it was a little jarring to see Commonwealth have so many empty seats at the start of a new season. In the past, one thing that defined UK football fans was that they always came back big after coaching changes. Yet for whatever reasons, that has not happened so far for Stoops after attendance plummeted in the final year (2012) of Joker Phillips' coaching tenure.

So far, Stoops has coached eight games in Commonwealth Stadium. Those contests have drawn an average of 58,293 fans. That is substantially less than the average attendance for the first eight home games of the three UK coaches who immediately preceded Stoops: Guy Morriss (63,805); Rich Brooks (64,999); and Phillips (65,064).

Making those numbers even more perplexing is that Stoops — buoyed by substantial early recruiting success — has seemed a far more popular hire than any of his three immediate UK predecessors were when they were chosen.

Morriss started out on a one-year contract after Hal Mumme's coaching regime imploded in an NCAA scandal. Brooks, at the time he was hired, excited almost no one (although most of us were proven wrong there). Phillips, who came to the UK head coaching job after a multi-year coach-in-waiting purgatory, had zero honeymoon with Cats fans.

So what gives?

Perhaps there is a dichotomy between the most hard-core UK football backers, the kind who check Internet recruiting sites every 15 minutes, and the broader Kentucky fan base.

Early last month, Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina-based firm, surveyed 991 Kentucky voters. In addition to political opinions, PPP also asked about attitudes toward sports figures. To those who identified themselves as UK fans, PPP asked whether they approved or disapproved of the job Stoops is doing.

Only 7 percent of UK fans disapproved of Stoops work so far at UK and 49 percent approved, but what struck me was 45 percent of Cats backers surveyed said they were "not sure" of their feelings toward Stoops' job performance.

That "show-me" mentality is new to UK football fandom.

In the past, whenever Kentucky would change coaches, the fans always immediately returned to filling Commonwealth Stadium. In 1996, the final three games of the Bill Curry era drew an average of 34,000 fans. The next season, with new coach Hal Mumme, Kentucky drew at least 57,000 fans (near capacity at that time) for every one of its home games.

This time, the "coming back to Commonwealth in a big way" phenomenon hasn't yet happened.

In recent years, we may have lived through the historic "tipping point" for UK football fans. Brooks gave Cats backers a taste of the better times for which they have long yearned with four straight winning seasons (2006-09).

Having to then watch Kentucky slip all the way back to the hard, rock bottom (back-to-back 2-10 seasons and winless league marks) of the SEC might have finally caused some Cats fans to let go of the rope.

Said Stoops: "(I) encourage everybody to keep coming (to the games) because we're getting better. Our team appreciates (fans) being there and some good things are ahead of us."

This time, it does not appear that Cats fans are going to consistently fill Commonwealth Stadium again until they see a winning Kentucky football team on the field.

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

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