By Charles D. Smith
It was a picture-perfect post-Thanksgiving Saturday afternoon along the banks of the Tennessee River. The field at Neyland Stadium was bathed in brilliant sunshine as Kentucky and Tennessee met for the 108th renewal of their ancient southern football rivalry.
By 3:35 p.m. ,the sun had sunk lazily behind the home sideline skyboxes, plunging the field into deep shadows. The game clock had gone to triple zero; the Joker Phillips age had officially ended at UK. Just as the Jerry Claiborne, Bill Curry, Hal Mumme, Guy Morris and Rich Brooks’ eras ended with losses to once arch-rival Tennessee, so too, did the Phillips’ era.
Despite the fact that total offensive yardage, first downs, time of possession and turnovers were almost even, despite the fact that both teams came into the game with no SEC wins, and despite the fact that both teams had lame duck coaches, the telling fact was on the scoreboard where the Vols easily beat the Wildcats 37-17.
Even though Neyland Stadium was not near capacity, and Big Orange fans had seen their team post one of the worst records in school history, they still got vocal when needed: they could flip the volume switch and help their defense get off the field on third down, play “Rocky Top” over and over (each time seemingly more loudly), and send off their seniors with style (in stark contrast to the lackluster support lately at Commonwealth Stadium).
Before, during, at halftime, and after the game, the “Pride of the Southland” band is an instrumental part of the tradition-rich experience of going to a Tennessee football game. From following the players’ path as they enter the stadium behind a police escort, to the playing of the “Tennessee Waltz” long after most fans have left to head home, the band provides the backdrop for the game. In one of the charming SEC traditions, the UT band comes over to the visiting fans’ section and serenades them with the opponents’ fight song. Never had “On, on U of K” sounded so good. Maybe it is just like with the team itself and it is strictly a numbers game, but the band is getting beaten also. (Maybe UK needs to hire long-time Lafayette High School band director Chuck Smith as a consultant: the Generals have a string of marching band championships, perhaps his expertise could help?
The band is the least of the problems facing Mitch Barnhart and the administration as they head into the off season. The search for a coach will take up most of the energy and an exciting hire could help reenergize the fan base. But any coach, regardless of stature, will only be a start in solving the conundrum of UK football. Many, many fans and pundits seemed to have resigned themselves to the fact that the football Wildcats will never be able to win more than eight games in a season and that success should be measured in that way.
Kentucky football has seldom faced a bigger hole to climb out of. While other SEC teams have increased spending on football facilities, Kentucky has stood pat and lagged behind in many areas. With Louisville and WKU both having successful years, the battle for the best in-state recruits will be that much tougher. A new coach and staff will mean at least one year of rebuilding and coupled with another brutal schedule will make wins very hard to come by next season. It certainly gets tougher and tougher being a UK football fan.