The Kentucky Wildcats open their 2017 home football schedule Saturday against in-state foe Eastern Kentucky at Kroger Field. There are coaches at another Bluegrass State university who covet the chance EKU is getting.
In July, during an interview on Louisville radio station WHBE AM-680, new Western Kentucky Hilltoppers football coach Mike Sanford Jr. was asked about playing UK.
“I want to play them so bad,” Sanford Jr. said. “(UK’s) brand is so powerful in this state, as we all know. Even in Bowling Green, I see so much blue.”
In June, WKU men’s basketball coach Rick Stansbury, the former Mississippi State head man, told me he thought it “would be good for the state” if the Hilltoppers started playing the Wildcats.
“When I was at Mississippi State, Kentucky was the standard for us in everything,” Stansbury said. “In recruiting, I would ask ‘Is this player good enough to beat Kentucky?’ Because, basically, that was who you had to beat to be a (SEC) champion. When you play Kentucky, you are testing yourself against the best. We’d like to do that (at Western).”
The question on the floor today is how much obligation, if any, should power-five conference member UK — or the University of Louisville — feel to schedule games against in-state schools from the less prosperous levels of Division I college sports?
In the case of Western and UK, the two schools have not played in football since 2013. They’ve not met in women’s basketball since 2008-09. They have not played in the men’s basketball regular season since 2001-02 (they did meet in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, with Kentucky winning).
On Saturday, after Kentucky had vanquished Southern Mississippi 24-17 in football, I asked UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart about the possibility of getting Western Kentucky back on the Cats’ schedules in the most visible sports.
“We play (state teams) in almost every sport. I don’t think we’ve shied away from that,” Barnhart said. “Sometimes, the schedules just don’t mesh and it doesn’t work. We haven’t ducked anybody. We have tried to be supportive of state schools.”
I went back 10 years comparing the football and men’s basketball schedules of Kentucky and Louisville to see how willing our state’s two college sports superpowers have been to play other in-state schools.
In football, UK has played eight games (counting 2017) against in-state foes other than U of L since 2008 — five against Western (of the FBS) and three against Eastern (FCS).
Over the same time frame, Louisville football has played five such games — three against Murray State (FCS) and two vs. EKU.
In men’s basketball, Kentucky has played five regular-season contests against in-state foes not named Louisville in the past decade — two each against Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State and one vs. Northern Kentucky.
In the past 10 years, Louisville men’s basketball has played 10 regular-season games against in-state teams other than UK — eight against Western, one each vs. Morehead State and EKU.
Resolution to the question on the floor: UK and U of L should prioritize self-interest in scheduling, of course. However, Kentucky and Louisville should always give the other in-state schools the scheduling benefit of doubt when they can.
Going forward, Kentucky has Murray State on its 2018 football schedule. Louisville will start a three-year football series with Western in 2018. U of L’s 2019 out-of-conference football schedule is commonwealth-centric — Eastern, Western, UK plus Notre Dame.
Starting in 2019-20, U of L and WKU will resume their men’s hoops series for four more years.
In aspiring to a place on Kentucky’s future schedules, Western may have been a tad too plucky in the past for its own good.
The Hilltoppers were victorious in their most recent men’s basketball regular-season game (2001-02) against Kentucky. WKU has also won its two most recent (2007-08 and 2008-09) women’s hoops matchups with the Cats.
WKU Athletics Director Todd Stewart said last month that he would like to talk with UK’s Barnhart about scheduling games in football, men’s basketball and women’s hoops “when the time is right.”
“I just need to get with Mitch and see what his thoughts are,” Stewart said.