We aren't out of the woods by any means, but Kentucky football fans finally have a reason for excitement.
Yesterday afternoon I took my family to greet Mark Stoops on his way into Nutter Fieldhouse for his first press conference as Kentucky coach. It was one of two opportunities for the general public to meet Stoops announced by UK over the weekend. Kentucky rolled out the red carpet, but it was a pretty hilarious scene. Me and about 200 other poors waited outside and formed a receiving line for Stoops while 700 or so K Fund donors and real journalists waited inside with the band, a gigantic freaking inflated football helmet in the entryway and a buffet that no one seemed to be eating.
Coach Stoops' wife Chantel showed up a few minutes before him to a big cheer. If you believe James Franklin's theory that he can judge a coach's recruiting ability by checking out his wife, then we should be in pretty good hands. With apologies to Clay Travis, Coach outkicked his coverage. (Herald Leader Pictures, which include one of Stoops shaking my son's hand, are here)
Even aside from Mrs. Stoops, the event went very well. Mark Stoops showed up a few minutes later to loud cheers headed inside and paused for a photo opp with Eli Capilouto and Mitch Barnhart. A few minutes later he emerged through the aforesaid gigantic helmet, but not before the President and AD walked in to a well deserved, and I'm guessing very welcome, round of cheers.
I'd love to say at this point that I talked my way into the event, but the truth is UK let everyone in once Stoops arrived, even after making a halfhearted show of having the donors identify themselves before entering.
I didn't stay for the media portion of the event, but did hear all three men on the dais say their piece. Stoops' opening remarks were well calculated coachspeak, but his mere presence seemed to breathe life into the assembled crowd. Between the effort UK went through, the 1000 fans, media, current and former players in attendance and the quality of the hire, it was a gathering of genuine excitement. Not one thing about this felt second rate. I haven't felt that way in a while.
The whole scene got me thinking about what we are as a Kentucky fan base. Out football fans have been described in turn as unrealistic, disloyal and apathetic at times. We were accused more than once this year of not properly supporting the team. I don't think any of these things are true. To me, the crux is that outside of some diehards, Kentucky football has fans. It has very good fans, but few fanatics.
Alabama, Georgia and Texas football have fanatics. Kentucky basketball has fanatics. People are always going to be passionate, and if on years when their teams stink to high heaven, they will CARE. Fake Kentucky football fans like to piss and moan, but that isn't the same as caring.
Still, the tools are there for Kentucky to have an amazing football fanbase. This state has a lot of traditional southern football families (mine being a prime example). A lot of us would rather be a football power. For those of us who live and breathe football, we can certainly smell it. Kentucky football isn't in "the conversation", but the conversation is going on all around us. We know how to turn on the fanatic gene because we love our basketball so much. But what separates the football and basketball fans in Big Blue Nation is this: football fans need something to get excited about. Blind faith and tradition isn't going to get it done.
Yesterday I realized that this isn't an indifferent fanbase. It is starving for a winner. But Kentucky football fans will do more than support a winner. We'll help along the way. But getting our attention has to happen organically. Slogans and 3D posters aren't going to get it done.
If Mark Stoops can start building a program that competes with Louisville again, wins some SEC games, and gets back to bowls, momentum will build around him. With his last name and pedigree, he is going to be able to open doors for the program that have been closed for years. He'll put together a staff that will get into kids living rooms.
If he can do that, people will care again. We will fill the stadium, travel to road games, and turn the Blue-White game into something more than an excuse for 100 people to drink beer inside Commonwealth.
UK did its part here. Stoops is a good hire, and yesterday's quasi-spectacle served notice that our administration has refocused its energy. While we're on this topic, UK will be missing out on a hell of an opportunity if this isn't added into the Commonwealth PA mix in 2013.
I have a feeling Stoops is going to do his part. After yesterday, I think we'll also do ours.
Follow me on Twitter @AlexScutchfield