Mark Story

Ohio St. ‘dots the i.’ Georgia has ‘Uga.’ What is UK football’s defining symbol?

Kentucky’s Josh Allen, left, and Matt Elam were greeted by fans during the Cat Walk before the team’s game against Mississippi at Kroger Field on Nov. 4, 2017.
Kentucky’s Josh Allen, left, and Matt Elam were greeted by fans during the Cat Walk before the team’s game against Mississippi at Kroger Field on Nov. 4, 2017. aslitz@herald-leader.com

Close your eyes and think “football game at Oklahoma.” Two white ponies pulling the “Sooner Schooner” soon race across the mind.

At Ohio State games, the band “dots the i.”

At Auburn, a “War Eagle” literally takes flight.

Across the land, college football gives rise to some of the most unique game-day traditions in American sport.

Georgia has “Uga,” its live Bulldog mascot. At Florida, the spectators do “the Gator chomp.” At Texas, the fans gesture “Hook’em Horns.”

I started thinking about college football’s game-day customs after perusing a recent nbcsports.com feature on the best of them.

It brought to mind the local college football program. What is the defining, game-day symbol of Kentucky Wildcats football? Is there one?

In Rupp Arena, the activity that resonates at Kentucky men’s basketball games is “making the Y.” That is when a person, often a former UK player or a visiting celebrity, walks to center court and spreads their arms in the form of the letter ‘Y” to complete the spelling of “Kentucky.”

Alas, translating “The Y” to Kroger Field could never really work. A 60,000-plus-seat football stadium would swallow up the gesture.

Live animal mascots like Colorado’s “Ralphie the Buffalo” can be compelling. However, having a live wildcat at ballgames would be problematic.

An undomesticated wildcat would have to be confined in a cage. It would be too small to make much of an impact in a football stadium, anyway.

At schools such as Alabama — Rammer jammer, yellow hammer — chants are the thing.

Kentucky home games feature much spelling out of C-A-T-S. Public address announcer Carl Nathe’s punctuates the action with his “Firsttt dooowwn, Kentucky!” calls.

None of that, though, is indelible in the way a stadium full of Arkansas fans “calling the Hogs” is.

From the arrival in Lexington of Hal Mumme and a pass-happy brand of football in 1997, UK has periodically utilized an Air Raid siren as a sound effect at home games.

If the Wildcats had been running the pass-oriented spread that Mumme and Tim Couch popularized in the 1990s continuously ever since, the Air Raid siren might be Kentucky football’s signature.

That’s not been the case, though. Now, those sirens do not resonate much with the UK attack built around the power running of Benny Snell.

In recent years, the “Cat Walk” — where fans gather to support the Kentucky football team as it makes its way into the locker room prior to playing — has gained steam.

But it seems almost every major football program has a similar pregame ritual, so it’s hard for UK’s “Cat Walk” to be seen as “defining.”

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Then-Kentucky running back Boom Williams was greeted by fans during the Cat Walk prior to the University of Kentucky-South Carolina football game in 2016. Ken Weaver

Many Wildcats fans have a strong attachment to the pregame playing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” In 2002, then-new Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart found out how strong that feeling was when he moved the playing of Stephen Foster’s wistful ode to the end of games.

The result was an outcry. In 2003, a Kentucky state senator proposed a bill to mandate that the state song be played before all UK home football and men’s basketball games.

Ultimately, Barnhart wisely relented, and the pregame playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” resumed.

Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart addresses concerns about sales of season football tickets declining to press during football media day on Friday morning.

Over the past three years, a new UK pre-kickoff tradition has emerged. In September 2016, the University of Kentucky unveiled statues of its first four black football players, Nate Northington, Greg Page, Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg, outside the Joe Craft Football Training Facility. Those four were pioneers in racially integrating SEC football.

Ever since, as UK players leave the facility to enter Kroger Field for the final time before games, some stop and touch the statues for good luck. It is reminiscent of Clemson players rubbing “Howard’s Rock” on their way to the field in Memorial Stadium.

If “touching the statues” becomes a continuous pregame ritual for Wildcats football players, it keeps one of the most positive achievements in the sports history of the University of Kentucky front and center on game days.

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In 2016, the University of Kentucky unveiled statues of the four football players who broke the SEC color barrier from left: Mel Page, representing his late brother Greg Page; Nate Northington; Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

Still, some schools have far more memorable football customs.

Close your eyes and think “University of Southern California football home game.” “Traveler,” the white horse ridden by a Trojan Warrior, soon charges through the mind.

One wonders if Kentucky’s spotty football tradition is the reason that a clearly defining, game-day symbol of Wildcats football has not organically emerged.

I’m interested in what you think. Do you think Kentucky football home games actually do have a signature ritual? If not, do you have any ideas for creating one?

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory

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