I am a lifelong fan of University of Kentucky sports–basketball and football being my major loves. Our basketball Wildcats have a storied history of success, winning more games than any collegiate program ever. Add to that eight NCAA titles and numerous Final Four appearances, and being a fan is easy and rewarding. Football, though, is another story altogether.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about our football woes. This was during the throes of one of our many downward spirals. I touched on the strength of our fans. It’s time to give us our due.
WOE IS US
For all our basketball success, our football fortunes have been star-crossed, at best. Football is the yin to basketball’s yang. We are the Yankees of basketball and the Cubs of football. Worse, we are the Kentucky of football and not in the basketball sense.
I could catalog the failures of our gridiron Cats, but I won’t. Let’s just say that my Cats haven’t had much success. Really, we haven’t had any success compared to the successful college football programs. We also have the misfortune of playing in the Southeastern Conference, home of such traditional football powers as Alabama, Florida, LSU and Auburn. Even the SEC’s lesser lights like Ole Miss, Tennessee, Georgia and Arkansas have proud football traditions. I assure you that any fans of those schools would be enraged to hear them called lesser lights. We UK fans would just nod and consider “lesser light” to be a compliment–a solid notch above doormat.
I’m writing this as a lament about UK football. I’m here to praise it and us, its loyal fans. I know the history as well as anyone. I remember losing a game on TWO pass interference penalties the covered almost an entire field as time expired. We’ve lost as time expired too many times to count. We’ve lost to teams that had no business playing an SEC team. We can win 1 or 2 games and still be put on probation for recruiting violations. Yes, we cheat, too, but we don’t even win. One of our coaches, Bill Curry, referred to a portion our fan base as “the Fellowship of the Miserable.” Few of us disagreed.
We don’t stay for wins, and we don’t leave because of losses. Sure, one or two win seasons are tough. We gut them out. It doesn’t matter if brighter skies are not on the horizon. Let’s see other fans do that.
KEEPING IT REAL
We’re real fans, more so than the devoted following of our basketball team (of which I am certainly one). It’s easy to cheer for a perennial winner. What of a team which disappoints or, even worse, plays down to our lowest expectations? We still show up to the games. We watch them on TV. We hold out hope, where no sane man would. I have a friend who routinely predicts a 9 win season, even though that never happens. This, he maintains, will be our year.
Like all fans, we embrace victories as proof of our own superiority. Young men, barely out of high school, give us a sense of well-being. We call their success our own, as though we contributed to their efforts. Kentucky fans, though, also embrace the losses. We are not a “we” win “they” lose crowd. However, we know that there will be games–many, in fact–which we cannot win. This does not dampen our enthusiasm.
We have no Bandwagon Fans. What are Bandwagon Fans? Anyone who becomes a fan of a team at the height of its success without another explanation such as geographic proximity. For example, if you became a University of Alabama football fan during the past four years, you are likely a Bandwagon Fan. Bandwagon Fans typically live far away from their chosen school and have no academic or family connection. They aren’t bad people, but they just aren’t as hard-core as some of us. If their team falls on hard times, they can just jump to another.
If anyone jumped on the UK Bandwagon, it was back in 1950 when we won the Sugar Bowl. If you’re that old, I’ll give you a pass.
Some of us, like me, are alumni. As at all colleges, we alums have a special bond. It’s our school. We’re honor bound to support our teams, regardless of the pain. Many are not graduates. UK has a statewide following, much like a professional sports team. This is certainly the case with basketball, where the fan base extends border to border. Our basketball fans include many folks who not only have never attended a game, they have never set foot on campus.
While the numbers are not as great, we have those folks in our football fan base as well. They have no school allegiance obligating this devotion. They’re fans, pure simple. One thing is certain. They didn’t develop their devotion through watching our Cats dominate.
There was time when we’d pack Commonwealth Stadium regardless of our Cats’ prospects. Times change and so have we. Like all fans, we have many other sports options. Back in the ’80’s, you might have 2 or 3 games on TV over the weekend. Now, there are games on all day and night. Only the truest of the true Blue make it to every game now. It’s like belonging a club. We show up rain or shine, win or lose or just plain lose. There’s something admirable about that. Or sad.
THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE REASONABLE
For many college football fans, every season comes down to one game–a loss. One loss scuttles the whole season. That loss is the difference between contending for the BCS Championship and a disappointing one or two loss season. I can’t imagine that situation nor do I want to do so.
Even UK fans can have a season ruined by one game. With us, it’s usually the Louisville game. We really want to win that one. Some seasons, we only win a couple of games anyway. Losing to U of L just seems unfair. However, if the Cats finished, say, 9 and 3, we’d get over a U of L defeat. Not so at schools like Alabama, LSU, Ohio State and others. For those teams, the three losses would be catastrophic. While a UK coach might look forward to a multi-year contract extension, coaches at these schools would find their very value as human beings questioned.
I don’t want that. We already have enough of that with our basketball team. My dream is having a shot–a real shot–at the SEC Championship every few years. In the other years, we’d still be respectable–no more one win fiascos. I don’t want to spiral into a funk with every loss. We have basketball season for that.
It’s fun to upset teams. We beat LSU when they were No. 1. We won’t forget that. Or beating Tennessee with a wide receiver at quarterback. Or finally beating Steve Spurrier. Merely losing to UK can ruin a team’s season. If we were a great program, those instances would be little more than footnotes.
As I write this, the 2014 season is one week old. My Cats are 1-0! Our second year coach, Mark Stoops, impresses me. He’s not a Kentuckian, but he understands us. He preaches patience but knows the Cats can do better. Hey, that sounds like me! I wish him great success (just as I have his many predecessors). However, I confess that the prospect of success scares me. We’ll no longer be Punter U. We won’t look at the schedule and immediately write off 3 or 4 games. We might actually expect to win every game. That’s a lot of pressure for a fan.