There’s going to be zero easing into the job for Darren Headrick.
The radio voice for the Kentucky baseball and women’s basketball teams — hired less than three months ago — will be on the call for the UK Radio Network men’s basketball game against Louisville on Friday.
When the UK football team learned that it would be playing Northwestern in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl in Nashville just a few short hours after the Cats’ basketball game against the Cardinals in Rupp Arena, Tom Leach was left in a lurch.
The original plan was for the radio voice of the Wildcats to do the basketball game and then take a private flight to Nashville to call the bowl game.
A promotion to fly a fan and a guest to the bowl after the basketball game originally was crafted around traveling with Leach, but that just wasn’t feasible.
“If we’d had another hour, we could’ve probably made it happen,” Leach said, laughing.
Enter Headrick, who got the news that his first career UK men’s basketball game would be the rivalry showdown with Louisville shortly after the bowl pairings were announced.
“My initial reaction was a lot of excitement followed by a little bit of nervousness,” said Headrick, a native of Maryville, Tenn., who replaced Neil Price in October.
“I know how passionate the fan base is in Kentucky and how much this game really means to everybody in the Bluegrass State,” he said. “Hopefully, Friday, fans will be entertained and informed and we’ll have a little bit of fun with a Kentucky win.”
To prepare to call his first Kentucky men’s game, Headrick has been reading notes, watching film and listening to interviews.
It’s not his only gig this week.
“I don’t know if I’m going to get a lot of sleep,” he said, but not because of a nervous stomach.
The UK women were to play Thursday night at Middle Tennessee State, and Headrick was scheduled to return to Lexington on the team bus at 3 a.m. on Friday.
In a fun twist, Leach’s first basketball game as an announcer also was a Louisville-Kentucky game, when then-play-by-play man Ralph Hacker sat out with laryngitis.
“I remembered thinking, ‘Well, if I only get to do one Kentucky basketball game, this is a great one to do,’” Leach said.
Choosing to do football over the biggest regular-season basketball game in the commonwealth was a no-brainer for Leach.
He just followed in the footsteps of past UK Network announcers.
“As far back as I can remember, we’ve always done it that way on the network,” Leach said. “The policy’s always been we always finish what we start. Football started first, so we finish that.”
A department divided
When the bowl game was announced, Mitch Barnhart said UK would have to work its way through some staffing problems with two major events just a few hours apart in different cities.
“Two really cool parties; gotta figure out how to throw them and make sure we host them properly,” the Kentucky athletics director said.
Those logistics have been worked through, including where Barnhart will be Friday: in Nashville with football.
“There are so many administrative responsibilities when it comes to a bowl and relationships with the bowl folks and that sort of stuff, it’s important for him to be down there,” said Guy Ramsey, director of strategic communications at UK.
Barnhart’s top assistant, Dewayne Peevy, will be in Lexington to oversee the basketball game. Other administrators’ destinations were decided on a case-by-case basis, but many of them are making the bowl trip, Ramsey said.
Support staff for each team stays with that team, and others were divvied up by where they would be most helpful, Ramsey said.
▪ The UK alumni band, which always plays home games when students are on their holiday breaks, will be in Rupp Arena, and the UK marching band will be in Nashville.
▪ The Blue Team for the UK cheerleaders will be at the bowl, and the White Team stays back for the game in Rupp Arena.
▪ Kentucky has two sets of mascot suits for the Wildcat and Scratch (“We try to keep sort of a mystery about that,” Ramsey said.) So the felines will be present at both events.
Updates on top UK weapons
It’s no secret that Cats quarterback Stephen Johnson didn’t end the season playing as well as he started it. At the midway point of the season, he was connecting on 63.9 percent of his passes for 1,238 yards and nine touchdowns.
In the past six games — while battling through injuries — Johnson has thrown just one touchdown and is completing just 56.8 percent of his passes.
The time off between the Louisville loss and the bowl was big for him, coach Mark Stoops said.
“It’s been good for Stephen and many of our players to hit the reset button,” the coach said. “Toward the end of the season, he was beat up. … He took a pretty good beating throughout the season.
“But he’s very resilient. He’s tough.”
He’s also finally healthy.
“Had a chance to rest up for a couple weeks, get back in the weight room, gain some weight. He’s looked very good here.”
Johnson will be difficult to defend, Pat Fitzgerald said.
“You just got to pop on the tape, see the problems he created for the SEC,” the Northwestern head coach said of UK’s senior signal caller. “He’s athletic. Dual threat. … He makes great decisions. It’s going to be a challenge, there’s no doubt about that.”
▪ Benny Snell has certainly caught the attention of Northwestern’s coaching staff, which has faced its share of star running backs this season in the Big Ten.
“As a former linebacker, when I study running backs when I was a player, you first look at the tough yards, short yardage, goal line,” Fitzgerald said. “What does the back do? Every time, not only does (Snell) fall forward, he drives forward.”
Stoops, Fitzgerald become fast friends
For a few hours Friday, head coaches Mark Stoops and Pat Fitzgerald will be adversaries, but once the Music City Bowl is over, they’ll go back to being fast friends.
“When we sit in the corner office, it’s a pretty cool place to be, but it’s pretty lonely,” Fitzgerald, Northwestern’s coach, said Thursday at a news conference to preview the bowl game.
So each time he goes to a bowl game, he contacts his head coaching counterpart to share trade secrets, discuss coaching, strategy and more.
“This is a great opportunity for me to start a relationship and grow and get better,” he said. “I’m going to be a huge Cat fan moving forward. That’s the great thing.”
Stoops said he even picked Fitzgerald’s brain about strategies for bowl preparation.
“He was very gracious. He really helped me,” Stoops said. “Here we are about to compete against each other tomorrow. But that’s the type of person he is. Then we’ve had a chance through this week to talk about many other things.”
Stoops and Fitzgerald spent even more time talking and comparing notes at the first bowl event this week.
“I think we solved world peace, every issue with the NCAA,” Fitzgerald said. “But that’s what our profession should be. We’re all doing the same thing.”
Sept. 2: at Southern Miss (W, 24-17)
Sept. 9: EASTERN KENTUCKY (W, 27-16)
Sept. 16: at South Carolina (W, 23-13)
Sept. 23: FLORIDA (L, 28-27)
Sept. 30: EASTERN MICHIGAN (W, 24-20)
Oct. 7: MISSOURI (W, 40-34)
Oct. 21: at Mississippi St. (L, 45-7)
Oct. 28: TENNESSEE (W, 29-26)
Nov. 4: OLE MISS (L, 37-34)
Nov. 11: at Vanderbilt (W, 44-21)
Nov. 18: at Georgia (L, 42-13)
Nov. 25: LOUISVILLE (L, 44-17)