UK Football

Mark Story: Longtime UK football fans say 2015 might have been their tipping point

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops walked the sidelines during the first half against Charlotte on Nov. 21, 2015, in Lexington.
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops walked the sidelines during the first half against Charlotte on Nov. 21, 2015, in Lexington. Associated Press

For 33 years, Wade Cunningham says he has driven east down I-64 from Louisville to use his season tickets to watch the Kentucky Wildcats play football in Commonwealth Stadium.

Yet when the 2016 season kicks off, Cunningham, 61, says those days will be over.

“Thirty-three years, and I am so done with them,” he says.

Kentucky is coming off back-to-back 5-7 seasons, but the UK football program has been in much worse competitive shape than it is now. Just two years ago, the Cats had gone 2-10 in consecutive years.

Yet I’m not sure I’ve ever heard as many veteran Kentucky fans talking about giving up their seasons tickets as I did this past week.

“I’ve never been so down, disgusted, frustrated,” Winchester’s Joe Waddell, 69, said.

It’s not all about the Cats finishing 1-6 after a 4-1 start, either. The $120 million renovation that reduced Commonwealth Stadium seating capacity by 6,000 seats saw all season tickets redistributed based on one’s “priority ranking” with the K Fund, UK’s athletics fund-raising arm. Parking passes were also reallocated.

Some hard feelings are the result.

Cunningham says he lost seats near people who had become friends. He says he also lost the right to park in the lot where he always had tailgated.

“(UK) has taken all the fun out of it for me,” Cunningham says. “All that’s left is the bad football — that hasn’t changed — and that’s not enough.”

Waddell attended his first Kentucky game at age 4. Bear Bryant was the Wildcats’ coach and Babe Parilli the starting quarterback.

When Commonwealth opened in 1973, Waddell bought season tickets. For this past season, Waddell said he had eight seats.

After the renovation, Waddell said he lost his access to the lot where he had always parked and saw his seats flipped to the opposite side of the stadium.

“I look at the investment we make each year, it’s not easy for some of us to come up with $5,000, $6,000 that we put into season tickets, and tailgating and all that stuff,” he said. “You put all that into it, it’s pretty frustrating to see the product we’ve got on the field. So I’m just not sure I’m going to buy season tickets again.”

Lexington’s Terry Hagan, 70, says he started going to Kentucky football games as a kid when he sold Coca-Colas in the old McLean Stadium. He says he’s had season tickets for 46 years.

He said his seats and parking were also changed as a result of the Commonwealth Stadium renovation. The parking switch from the Red Lot adjacent to the stadium to the Orange Lot across one street from Commonwealth galled Hagan. He attends UK games with a friend, Mike Peyton, who has trouble walking due to a bad back.

“If I don’t get my Red Lot (parking) passes back, I’m done,” Hagan said. “It just upset me. I think it wasn’t fair how (UK) handled it. I’m just tired of getting pushed around.”

Let’s pause here to say the renovated Commonwealth Stadium was well done. A venue that opened when Richard M. Nixon was president now looks sleek and modern. In an era when live attendance at many sporting events is under downward pressure, the decision by Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart to reduce seating capacity from some 67,000 to some 61,000 will prove wise.

The hope is a spiffed-up stadium will eventually help Kentucky attract more good players who will win more games, too.

Until that happens, I wonder if UK fully understands its football fan base. When a team’s backers have not watched great success on the field, the other aspects of attending games — sitting near the same people year-after-year, tailgating around friends — become vital to the fan experience.

This year’s fan dislocation in the stands and parking lots, followed by a sixth straight losing season, helps explain why the atmosphere around the Kentucky football program turned so toxic.

Still, as aggrieved as many long-time Wildcats football fans seemed last week, it is hard for them to cut the cord with the Big Blue.

The family of Scotty Sutton, the girls’ basketball coach at Sayre High School, had the same seats in Commonwealth Stadium from the time the venue opened.

“Those seats are where I went to games with my dad,” Sutton said. “They were all my kids ever knew. They were ‘our’ seats.”

Until the Suttons lost them in the CWS re-ticketing.

“After 42 years, they moved our seats like it was nothing,” Sutton said. “It really upset us. My brother, he definitely says he’s gone.”

Yet Scotty Sutton, 47, is not gone.

“If I was ever going to go, this would do it,” he said. “But you know what, (Kentucky football) is something in my life I’ve always enjoyed and loved. I’ve just decided, I’m not going to let them take that away from me.”