The Kentucky high school football state championships have been played in Commonwealth Stadium exactly once — 1976.
In what was only the second year of four-class high school football in Kentucky, Fort Campbell (Class A), Corbin (2A), Lloyd Memorial (3A) and Trinity (4A) left Lexington as state champions.
The state title games have not returned here since.
However, at the University of Kentucky’s football media day this month, UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart was asked whether the university is now interested in trying to bring the high school football championships back to Lexington.
“Obviously there’s two or three pieces to that equation,” Barnhart said. “One, we don’t have control of that. That’s controlled by the (Kentucky) High School Athletic Association. We respect that. They have their agreements they have to work through. ... Certainly, we would desire to be in that conversation and have an opportunity. If the time is right, we would certainly welcome that conversation. So, yeah, we would love to be in it.”
What’s altered UK’s stance on having Commonwealth Stadium serve as the site of the high school football title games — which are now up to six classes, of course — was the installation of a synthetic playing surface in the venue before the 2015 season.
When Commonwealth had a grass field, the stress of multiple high school games all played on the same weekend was problematic for the condition of the turf.
Now that UK, as part of the $120 million renovation of Commonwealth, has installed UBU-Speed-Series-SF-M turf — with its 70 percent rubber, 30 percent sand infill ratio — that is no longer an issue.
The high school football state championships have been played at Western Kentucky University’s Houchens-L.T. Smith Stadium since 2009.
KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett said Monday that the organization has a contract that will keep the state football championships in Bowling Green through 2018.
“We have a very good relationship with the university there,” Tackett said of WKU. “We have a good relationship with sponsors. We will absolutely honor the contract we have in place.”
After that, however, Tackett says the KHSAA would be willing to talk with UK about moving the football state championships.
“We don’t close any doors,” Tackett says. “We will sit down with any event manager interested in hosting one of our championships. We will certainly hear them out.”
Tackett said UK had communicated to the KHSAA an interest in bringing the football state championship games to Lexington even before Barnhart spoke publicly of that desire this month.
Since the last time the KHSAA football championship games were in Lexington in 1976, they’ve made a pretty good tour of the state. The title games have been in Richmond (Eastern Kentucky’s Hanger Field, 1977-78), Louisville (Kentucky Exposition Center Cardinal Stadium 1979-2002; Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium 2003-08); and Bowling Green.
It is obvious why Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops and his staff would want to expose the plushly renovated Commonwealth Stadium by playing host to our state’s most important high school football games.
For high school players given the chance, playing in an SEC football venue could provide an additional thrill to reaching a state championship contest.
Conversely, given that Lexington already has the most popular KHSAA state championship event, the boys’ basketball Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena, you wonder how the rest of the state would feel about the city also getting the football title games.
Even the future possibility of WKU losing the state football championships could arouse sensitivities in Bowling Green.
After Western Kentucky’s E.A. Diddle Arena played host to the girls’ basketball state championship tournament from 2001-15, the KHSAA moved that event to Northern Kentucky University’s BB&T Arena in 2016 on the first of a two-year contract.
The politics of removing a second major state championship from the western part of the state could prove challenging for the KHSAA.
Yet whatever WKU’s future is with the Girls’ Sweet Sixteen, Tackett says that will not impact what the KHSAA decides with the football state title games.
“We evaluate each (state championship) event as its own entity,” Tackett says, “and we try to do what we think is best for that event on a stand-alone basis.”