When Lexington's five public high schools played five teams from out of town in the iHigh Football Frenzy at Lafayette in late August, it was a sign of things to come this fall.
All of the Lexington teams fell in the Frenzy. Bryan Station lost to Eastern, Henry Clay to Bowling Green, Lafayette to Bell County, Paul Dunbar to Harlan County, and Tates Creek to Ryle.
As the season progressed, the five visiting teams turned out to be very good, among the best in their classes. But shouldn't Lexington's Class 6A schools have managed a victory or two?
In hindsight, no. Not the way the city teams performed over the next two months.
Lexington's public-school teams finished the regular season with a combined record of 20-30. Not counting intra-city games, only one of those 20 victories (Bryan Station over Anderson County) came against a team that ended the regular season with a winning record.
One week into the playoffs, Dunbar (1-10), Henry Clay (3-8) and Tates Creek (3-8) are finished.
Lafayette (8-3), which has beaten one team (Bryan Station) with a winning record, visits Campbell County on Friday night, and Bryan Station (7-4) travels to Louisville for a rematch with Eastern.
Henry Clay Coach Sam Simpson, whose injury-riddled Blue Devils had their first losing season since 1997, admitted it wasn't a very good year for public-school football in Lexington.
"Everybody goes through peaks and valleys," he said. "I've been here when the best football around was in this city. And I've been here when things weren't so good. It's been that way this season."
It's been 30 years since a Lexington public school won an overall state football title: Henry Clay's undefeated Class 4A champs in 1981.
Lafayette was "at-large" 4A titlist in 1985 but lost to Trinity in the overall finals.
Four Lexington schools were state runners-up in the 1990s: Henry Clay to St. Xavier in '95. Dunbar to Nelson County in '96. Tates Creek to Male in '98. Bryan Station to St. Xavier in '99.
Since then, no Lexington public school has made it to the finals. Meanwhile, Lexington Catholic has won two state titles (2005, '07), and Lexington Christian Academy has one title (2009) and a runner-up finish (2007).
Why aren't the city's public-school teams better?
That question was put to the two longest-tenured coaches in town — Simpson and Mike Harmon of Tates Creek — and three former coaches — Henry Clay Principal John Nochta, who took Bryan Station to the 1999 finals; Tates Creek Athletics Director Joe Ruddell, who guided the Commodores to the 1998 finals, and Mike Meighan, who led Dunbar to the 1996 finals.
Their answers include:
■ Lexington's public high schools don't have dedicated middle school feeder systems that teach the same offenses and defenses as the high school teams.
"At Tates Creek, we draw from four different middle schools," Harmon said. "We have no control or carryover to the high school."
After leaving Dunbar, Meighan has kept up with Lexington football, first as an assistant at LCA, and now as a radio color man. He said the lack of middle school feeder programs is the "No. 1 reason" city football is suffering.
"Look at Scott County. It has three middle schools, and all three run the exact same offense and defense as the high school. That's a huge advantage."
Ruddell and Nochta do think Don Adkins, who oversees athletics for Fayette County's schools, is strengthening the middle school programs by increasing the number of games they play.
■ Lexington doesn't attract experienced, proven head coaches. The supplemental pay for coaches is lower here than at schools in other counties, even though coaches in other counties often don't have to carry a full teaching load, as they do in Fayette County. "As a school system, we've got to be as competitive about hiring football coaches as we are hiring teachers," Ruddell said.
■ Lack of coaching stability. Simpson, who's been at Henry Clay 19 years, is the only long-timer in town. The other four city public schools have had 23 head coaches since Simpson arrived at Henry Clay in 1993. Dunbar has changed coaches seven times since 2000.
"You need continuity and consistency with your coaches," Nochta said. "That's big in building a program and keeping it at a high level."
Simpson agreed that "a turnover in coaches can be disruptive." He thinks new coaches need to be given a chance to succeed.
"We've got a good collection of coaches in the city now," he said. "If they're given support and time, I think we'll see a lot of improvement in the next few years."
■ A lot of assistant coaches in town don't teach in the high schools where they coach, so the players don't have those extra eyes on them, or that extra encouragement about football.
■ Dunbar's opening in 1990, Lexington Catholic's starting football in 1991, and LCA starting up a program in 2001, spread the football talent thinner around town.
■ Simply put, football isn't as important to high school athletes in Lexington as it is elsewhere in the state.
"In other places, there's pressure to be part of the program, to go out for the team, to have bonfires before the game, to have that spirit," Meighan said. "You don't see that in Lexington."
Those half-dozen reasons don't tell the whole story.
Harmon says local football teams also take a hit when athletes specialize in one sport. Harmon said that at Tates Creek, that one sport is baseball. He said Commodores baseball coach Dom Fucci supports kids playing football, too, but very few do.
Nochta and Ruddell also say city football is still suffering from Hal Mumme's influence. When he took over at Kentucky in 1997, Mumme brought the spread offense to town. While it was exciting and high-scoring (for a while), Nochta and Ruddell say it devalued fundamentals and defense.
"I think we are stuck in some of the Hal Mumme 'gadget' football mentality," Ruddell said. "I think you do have to throw the ball, but I don't think you have to be in the shotgun every play.
"I think we've lost all consciousness of blocking and tackling."
Ruddell said he saw proof of that in the Football Frenzy: "Those people were blocking and tackling us to death."
Nochta said the popular "brand of football" in Lexington "isn't a physical brand anymore."
If it all sounds like gloom and doom in the city, there is some optimism.
Simpson, who has always seen the glass as half full, said that while "it's not been a stellar year" in Lexington, "there are still good players here, and there'll be more in the future, and we're going to have some really good football teams again. I don't think the well has run dry. I really think better days are ahead."