After the Herald-Leader hired a new Kentucky beat reporter in the summer of 1981, columnist D.G. FitzMaurice gave him a tour of the campus. Included were perfunctory introductions to UK athletics officials.
Kentucky’s football coach at the time, Fran Curci, skipped the niceties and got straight to the point by asking, “Are you a football writer or a basketball writer?” It became immediately clear that the diplomatic “I like both sports” was the wrong response.
A rocky relationship ensued.
That exchange came to mind during UK’s loss at Florida last weekend. Perhaps to enliven a telecast of a non-competitive game, CBS analyst Gary Danielson pondered Kentucky’s historic futility in football. He suggested that UK basketball made building a competitive football program more difficult.
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“I basically said Kentucky is known as a basketball school, and it’s hard to change the culture of that … ,” Danielson said in a telephone conversation last week. “That’s the deal with Mark Stoops. He knew it when he took the job. It’s a basketball school first, and he has to succeed within that culture.”
Danielson stressed that he did not mean to imply that it was impossible for Kentucky to compete at the highest level of college football. Nor did he mean to suggest that fans’ never-ceasing interest in UK basketball condemned football to second-class status.
Schools can enjoy great success in football and basketball.
“I never said (Stoops) couldn’t win because of basketball,” Danielson said. “It’s been done before. Although I can’t find a lot of examples right off the top of my head.”
I never said (Mark Stoops) couldn’t win because of basketball. It’s been done before. Although I can’t find a lot of examples right off the top of my head.
Only 10 schools have won national championships in both football and basketball. In the last 50 years, only Florida and Michigan have done it.
Rival recruiters use basketball against UK football, Danielson said.
“At Kentucky, you’re not the big man on campus,” he said of the hypothetical five-star football prospect. “It doesn’t mean you don’t get them. But it’s a battle. …”
Danielson was not speaking from personal experience.
“I’ve just heard a lot of coaches used that against Kentucky,” he said, “and I’ve heard Kentucky coaches say it is a hurdle.”
Of course, Curci has said it.
When UK fired him after the 1981 season, Curci issued a statement that included his complaint of a “double standard” at UK. Basketball got preferential treatment, he said.
Curci said much the same thing in a 2013 interview posted by AL.com. “Basketball is so dominant there to a ridiculous point,” he said.
In his time at UK, Curci said a rival recruiter such as then-Tennessee Coach Johnny Majors would tell a prospect visiting Kentucky to compare the “lodge” for UK basketball with the dorm where UK football players lived.
Still, basketball should not be a scapegoat for Kentucky’s football futility, Danielson said. Other factors play a bigger role.
Other states have more SEC-caliber high school players “who dreamed of being a Gator or (playing for) Alabama or Auburn,” the CBS analyst said. “There are less of those available in Kentucky. That’s just how it is.”
Geography also works against Kentucky. As the northern-most school in the SEC, prospects must bypass closer-to-home options in order to play for UK, Danielson said.
Curci made the same point in the AL.com posting. Such coaches as Frank Broyles, Charlie McClendon, Darrell Royal and Paul “Bear” Bryant advised him to take the Kentucky job in 1973.
But then-Notre Dame Coach Ara Parseghian did not. “He said, ‘It’s the northernmost school in the South and southernmost school in the North, and it’s just a really difficult place to recruit,’” Curci said. “And it was. It was hard. But we did OK for a while.”
Curci, who could not be reached for comment, is one of two UK coaches to win an SEC championship. Bryant is the other. And Kentucky hasn’t had a winning SEC record since Curci’s 1977 team.
Kentucky’s lack of a winning tradition also makes the football coach’s job more difficult, Danielson said.
Danielson’s assessment of UK football echoed what Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart said this summer … with one glaring exception. Barnhart did not mention UK basketball as a negative factor.
“Well, he’d be crazy to,” Danielson said with a laugh. “He’s a smart man. The emblem on his check says Kentucky. Mine doesn’t.”
Football hurting basketball?
If the overwhelming presence of basketball hinders Kentucky’s efforts to build a credible football program, is the reverse true for the rest of the SEC? Does the league’s football success on a grand scale make it more difficult for schools other than UK to raise their basketball profiles?
The man hired earlier this year to help guide an SEC basketball renaissance downplayed the notion of football as a hindrance. Former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said that basketball and football operate in two different realities, therefore football’s impact on basketball is minimal.
“In basketball, with two or three kids, you can be very, very good,” he said. Jamal Mashburn made such a dramatic difference at Kentucky in the early 1990s. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe did the same in 2009-10.
“In football, you need a lot of bodies,” Tranghese said. “So you’ve got to have the ability to attract a lot of players. It’s just a different animal.”
Tranghese suggested that the top 25 in football remains largely the same year after year. As for basketball, “there’s a lot of people who come in, get out, come in, get out,” he said. “I just don’t comprehend if you’re good in football, why you can’t be good in basketball.”
Conclusion: It’s easier to revive a basketball program because one recruiting “get” can make a bigger difference.
Therefore, Tranghese did not see football as a drag on basketball. Football weekends are a vibrant time to show off the campus to basketball recruits, he said. Sure, some basketball prospects might be turned off by football being the most prominent sport, but enough players won’t be bothered by SEC football’s shadow.
“If I can convince the kid we can win, I don’t know why being good in another program is a hurdle,” Tranghese said. “I’ve never understood that.”
For the 21st straight year, Kentucky will play on CBS in the final weekend of the regular season. From the network’s point of view, UK is a good team to have in a game that serves to promote coverage of the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
Of course, CBS wants to maximize the effect by having as an opponent the second-most eye-catching team the SEC can muster. So in 14 of the last 16 seasons, UK played Florida, which validated Billy Donovan’s status as a transformational figure in SEC basketball.
Last season, CBS had Kentucky play the league’s most ballyhooed newcomer, LSU freshman Ben Simmons.
This season brings Texas A&M to the exalted position as Kentucky opponent on the final weekend. A&M Coach Billy Kennedy had mixed feelings.
“It definitely helps our program putting us on a national stage to be playing them at that time of year,” he said. “The only scary thing is I think this is going to be one of (John Calipari’s) best teams.”
Judging by the various way-too-early rankings, a Kentucky intra-squad game would be the only competitive competition for a final weekend matchup. UK is the only league team ranked in six rankings called up randomly (ESPN, SB Nation, SI.com, Athlon, CBS Sports and NBC Sports). The Cats are ranked no worse than No. 3 (by ESPN and SI.com). A&M rates no better than honorable mention or among “others considered” (ESPN, Athlon and NBC Sports).
“There’s a lot of truth to that,” Kennedy said.
A&M will have a credible front line: Tyler Davis, Tonny Trocha-Morelos, Admon Gilder and D.J. Hogg.
But the perimeter is a mystery now that Danuel House, Jalen Jones and Alex Caruso have departed.
The Aggies expect to have at least 10 freshmen and sophomores on the roster.
Three immediate thoughts about Kentucky’s 2017 SEC schedule:
▪ With no game at South Carolina, UK fans can expect John Calipari to coach in all games from start to finish. Of course, Calipari was ejected from games in South Carolina in 2014 and 2016, the latter barely three minutes after tip-off.
▪ Yet another game at Alabama marks the fifth time in seven seasons that Kentucky will play in Tuscaloosa, and the third straight season.
▪ There will be five league games for Kentucky that start at 9 p.m. EST. That might seem like a lot, but it’s about on par. In the previous seven seasons with Calipari as coach, UK has played in an average of 4.7 games that began a few minutes after 9 p.m. The record, if such a thing qualifies as a record, is six 9 p.m. starts in 2012-13.
For what it’s worth, in the seven seasons prior to Calipari’s arrival, UK played in an average of 3.4 games that had 9 p.m. tips.
And if you’re an insomniac, you might recall that from 1993-94 through 1998-99, Kentucky played in an average of 2.9 games that began with a 9:30 p.m. EST start time.
To Marquis Estill. He turned 35 on Thursday. … To Reggie Warford. He turned 62 on Thursday. … To former LSU coach John Brady. He turned 62 on Saturday. … To Dicky Beal. He turns 54 on Sunday (today). … To Rick Pitino. The Louisville coach (and former UK coach) turns 64 on Sunday (today). … To Derrick Hord. He turns 56 on Monday. … To Adam Williams. He turns 31 on Monday. … To Jared Carter. He turns 30 on Tuesday. … To Jack Givens. He turns 60 on Wednesday. … To new Vandy coach Bryce Drew. He turns 42 on Wednesday.