During the second half of Kentucky’s listless 45-7 football loss at Florida last month, CBS analyst Gary Danielson opined that UK’s historic success in men’s basketball hindered its search for pigskin proficiency.
I’ve thought about those comments a lot the past three weeks as we’ve all watched:
Louisville, a “basketball school,” rout traditional football titan Florida State 63-20 on the gridiron.
Duke, a “basketball school,” beat traditional football titan Notre Dame in front of “Touchdown Jesus” in South Bend.
North Carolina, a “basketball school,” beat FSU in football in Tallahassee.
Indiana, a “basketball school,” beat No. 17 Michigan State in football in overtime.
There are many reasons University of Kentucky football has not often succeeded at the level its fans desire. Of those, UK’s prominence in men’s hoops is one of the least telling.
How else do you explain that a “basketball school” such as Louisville has gone 44-13 since 2012 in football?
Or that U of L, led in 2016 by transcendent quarterback Lamar Jackson, has arguably been the “buzziest” football program in the land this season?
“Basketball school” UCLA is 40-18 in football since 2012.
“Basketball school” North Carolina is 36-21 since 2012 in football.
Heck, “basketball school” Indiana — long a pigskin laggard — is now 9-8 in its past 17 football games.
Those seeking to explain Kentucky’s 16-37 record in football since 2012 need to look farther than Rupp Arena.
Now, rival football coaches have long used UK’s reputation as a “basketball school” against Wildcats football recruiters. They have done that for eons.
Back when the original Joe B. Hall Wildcat Lodge basketball dorm was new, it was said that then-Tennessee football coach Johnny Majors would instruct prospects UT was wooing who were about to visit UK to make a point of comparing where Wildcats football players lived (a “regular” dormitory or in off-campus housing) to the plush digs where the UK men’s hoopsters resided.
In 2013, before Kentucky hosted Alabama in Commonwealth Stadium, a Crimson Tide assistant coach caught the eye of then-John Hardin High School defensive lineman Matt Elam — who was on the field during pregame warmups while on an “unofficial” recruiting visit.
At the time, Elam was the subject of an intense recruiting battle between Bama and UK.
Once the Alabama coach had Elam’s attention, he pointed at the mostly empty stands (a late-arriving crowd eventually filled the pre-renovation Commonwealth with 69,873).
Then, raising his arm, the Tide assistant mimicked the motion of shooting a basketball.
However, those kind of recruiting tactics can be overcome. UK did sign Elam, after all.
In his spiel on Kentucky basketball overshadowing UK football, CBS’s Danielson cited hearing a caller to a Lexington postgame radio call-in show ask a hoops question immediately after the football Cats had upset No. 1 LSU in triple overtime in 2007.
Fact is, there are plenty of football questions on UK basketball postgame radio call-in shows, too, especially around football’s national signing day on the first week in February.
Yet, somehow, that pigskin interest doesn’t seem to penetrate national perceptions of UK sports fans.
Kentucky backers relish the success that the winningest men’s college hoops program of all time has produced and yearn to be associated with it.
The difference in victory frequency explains the varying levels of fan passion associated with UK football and men’s basketball.
If the pigskin Wildcats ever gave Kentucky fans a sustained stretch of gridiron glory, the fan reaction would match the basketball hoopla, maybe even exceed it due to the pent-up demand created by decades of football frustration.
Kentucky’s historic struggles in SEC football — no winning league record since 1977; only seven winning conference marks since 1933 — owe primarily to the fact that UK does not have an in-state recruiting base sufficient to ensure long-term success in the league in which it plays.
Needing, therefore, to go out of state to lure the level of talent it takes to win in the Southeastern Conference, Kentucky has not been able to do so because it doesn’t win consistently enough.
As cycles go, it’s a vicious one.
Yet that hard reality, not UK’s basketball success, is the main reason Kentucky football has lagged.
Football at ‘basketball schools’
How the eight most prominent “basketball schools” have fared in FBS football the past five seasons (2012-the current year):
1. Louisville 44-13
2. UCLA 40-18
3. North Carolina 36-21
4. Duke 35-23
5. Indiana 22-31
6. Connecticut 18-36
7. Kentucky 16-37
8. Kansas 10-42