UK Football

Mark Story: After fumbling, Kentucky fine-tuning its ideas to honor past football greats

The University of Kentucky's Ring of Honor has been relocated from inside Commonwealth Stadium to the support poles on the concourse. Some former Kentucky football greats say the banners blend in too much to be noticed.
The University of Kentucky's Ring of Honor has been relocated from inside Commonwealth Stadium to the support poles on the concourse. Some former Kentucky football greats say the banners blend in too much to be noticed. Herald-Leader

For University of Kentucky athletics officials, finding the right balance in Commonwealth Stadium between embracing the modern and preserving the past has proven tricky.

Last season, UK installed ribbon boards around the top of Commonwealth's lower bowl. It gave the now 40-year-old stadium a contemporary sheen, but the cost came at the expense of UK football tradition.

The ribbon boards covered up what had been Kentucky's Ring of Honor — the 45 names, from Shipwreck Kelly to Bear Bryant to Tim Couch, who have had UK football jerseys retired — on the stadium wall.

In 2011, as a temporary replacement, UK hung flags with the names of those who had been in the Ring of Honor at the top of the second deck of Commonwealth Stadium. (The new ribbon boards also display those names a couple of times each game.)

Problem was, the flags were not very visible.

Last year, several of the former UK greats whose names had been covered up were, let's say, less than thrilled with what had happened.

Former UK running back Mark Higgs said then, "it was like a slap in the face. Now, (UK is) advertising Coke and putting on a laser show (on the ribbon boards). It's terrible, terrible."

Ex-Kentucky linebacker Joe Federspiel said then, "what they have done is sort of a slap in the face to former players."

So, this year, Kentucky athletics officials are trying again to find another way to honor UK football's past greats. In the concourse of Commonwealth on each side of the field, Kentucky has hung adhesive pennants on the stadium support beams to recognize all 45 people who were formerly in the Ring.

The pennants show a picture of an honoree from his playing/coaching days at Kentucky, have his name, the year in which he played/coached and his UK jersey number.

"It's another way to try to honor them," Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said. "... We felt like it was another opportunity to put (the names) on the walkway around the inside so, as people walk around, they have a chance to see them."

Speaking two days before Kentucky's home opener with Kent State, Barnhart said he was happy with the new means of honoring UK's past greats.

"I'll be honest, I think it does a pretty nice job, a better job, of highlighting people," the UK AD said. "(Fans) actually see a picture of a guy and the years they were here. It kind of puts the pieces of the puzzle together and I don't think we could even do all that when (the Ring of Honor) was on the inside of the stadium."

After two UK home games in 2012, I checked on the reaction to the new pennants from some of the ex-UK stars who were upset in 2011.

Higgs, who lives in Miami, has not been in Commonwealth this season but said he was glad to hear the university had replaced last season's flags. "Unless the wind was blowing super hard, you couldn't see the names at all on those flags," he said.

Federspiel attended the Kentucky-Western Kentucky game and was lukewarm on the new pennants.

"It is nice that they are trying to do something," he said. "But those pennants, they are up there pretty high and they sort of blend in with the (stadium) beams. We've gone from having our names inside the stadium where everybody could see them to more on the outside."

There may be something to the problem of the new pennants "blending in." Ex-Wildcats greats Sam Ball and Jeff Van Note both attended WKU-UK, yet each said they didn't notice the new means of honoring Ring of Honor members.

Noting that UK hopes to launch a significant renovation of Commonwealth Stadium soon, Kentucky football publicist Tony Neely said the university is still exploring other ways to more prominently honor ex-Wildcats legends.

For my two cents, I'll say again I like the ribbon boards and believe they give Commonwealth Stadium a "now" feel. But I don't blame the former players and their families who feel betrayed that the Ring of Honor was covered over. That type of honor is supposed to be forever.

The adhesive pennants Kentucky has installed this season are a step up from last season's flag flap. Still, UK needs to find a way to again prominently honor its past greats inside the Commonwealth Stadium bowl.

If you have a good idea(s) on how that can be done and would like to share, I will pass those along in a future column.

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