Kentucky is set to kick off the 2012 football season Sunday against the arch-rival Louisville Cardinals at Papa John's Cardinals Stadium, and this is as it should be.
Rich Brooks did a helluva lot of good for UK football and deserves praise for his overall tenure here, but his opposition to opening each football season with Louisville was a mistake. At the time, I defended Coach Brooks as I felt that the head coach should have the final word when setting the upcoming schedule, but history has found us both on the wrong side of this issue.
Football in the Commonwealth is not exactly steeped in tradition, for either the Cats or the Cards. As excited and optimistic as the Cardinal faithful are about the prospects of the 2012 season, they were equally as apathetic and even absent during the latter stages of the Kragthorpe Era.
Basketball fans in this state will turn out in droves to watch a mediocre product. Their football counterparts will not, regardless of rooting interest. The Kentucky v. Louisville game is the exception to that rule though. It's the one game that is guaranteed to put butts in pink plastic seats or on aluminum benches regardless of the overall prospects of either team.
This is the one game that fans of both teams will talk about year-round. No, I'm not talking about Wildcat Linebacker 45 on the message board who has 20,000 posts or "Football Dave" who will call in to local radio shows all summer to discuss depth charts and bemoan the lack of attention his favorite sport gets in comparison to its hardwood counterpart. I'm talking about Joe Wildcat fan who may buy season tickets if there's expectations of plenty of forward passes and a bowl game, but otherwise couldn't name five players off the two-deep.
These are the folks that make up attendees 30,001-70,000 at Commonwealth Stadium on a given Saturday. These are the folks that are necessary for the financial health and well-being of the program. So, they're the portion of the fanbase that needs to be catered to, because let's be honest "Football Dave" will be there even if the Cats are 1-11 and Tim Couch is running the option. No need to cater to him beyond fielding a team.
Catering to this segment of the fanbase means working at generating excitement and interest for the upcoming season. The easiest shortcut is to schedule Louisville first. It makes for a much more compelling offseason around these parts when the build is to a Labor Day Weekend tilt with the Cards as opposed to some sparsely attended neutral site affair with Western or a ho hum home opener against a school that most people had to Google to determine the mascot. It's nice that football is back, but there is no buzz in the air for a home opener against the Directional Tech College Direwolves.
Moving the game also gives the ancillary benefit of being able to space out the only legitimate non-conference opponent from the ridiculously tough SEC schedule. Instead of leading into the SEC with an emotionally and physically draining matchup with the Cards, Kentucky might be able to work BYE in there prior to Florida or the aforementioned Direwolves. Plus, when the question of Louisville inevitably arises during fall camp perhaps we can all avoid the clichéd coach speak about "taking one game at a time" and "focusing on the next opponent." Yeah coach, that's great that the Direwolves finished first in the Northern Division of the Westeros Conference last season, but let's talk Cats v. Cards.
So let's fix this. Quietly and with no fanfare. Just put the game back on Labor Day Weekend as soon as it is practical. Yeah, there may be a bit of a PR hit, but beyond a few bruised egos in the athletic department, the program won't suffer any real damage. The long term benefits will outweigh any minor PR flap anyway.
Opening with Louisville was one of the better traditions that Kentucky football has had over the years. It's time to revive that tradition and use the summer long build to the game to build excitement for the football program as a whole.
Game 1, as it should be
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