The lackluster attendance caused some fans to wonder if playing Western Kentucky at LP Field was the best alternative. Some wondered why UK would simply not play Western in the comforts of Commonwealth Stadium, while others still asserted the Wildcats would be better off playing an opponent from a BCS conference.
In an increasingly complex college football landscape, non-conference scheduling is becoming a more and more difficult endeavor with countless factors that must be weighed. While the circumstances surrounding the game against Western Kentucky were far from ideal, the decision to play the game was made in conjunction with Joker Phillips and his coaching staff and not without due consideration.
"There are no scheduling decisions in our football program that we're making without consultation and joint approval of the administration and coaching staff," Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said in an exclusive interview with Cat Scratches this week. "We would never make a decision separate from our coaching staffs. We want them to know we have their best interests at heart and that we're not going to put them or our team in a position of risk."
When it comes to scheduling, the ultimate goal is to best position the team to compete on a high level. Barnhart said the non-conference schedule has to be arranged in such a way that allows the squad a chance to stay healthy throughout an entire SEC schedule.
"From a depth perspective and an experience perspective and giving our kids a chance to grow into our schedule, which is challenging enough, I think this is the best thing for us," Barnhart said. "You can call it what you want, but the reality is that my job is to protect our football program and give us the best chance to prepare for SEC, postseason play and hopefully championship runs."
Stemming from that priority, Barnhart's goal is to schedule a minimum of seven home games each season with four coming in SEC play and at least three in the non-conference. Doing so positions UK for success on the field while also allowing fans plenty of opportunities to see the Cats in Commonwealth Stadium. With four SEC home games, UK is left with one "swing game" one way or another, Barnhart said.
Eight of 12 regular season games are accounted for by SEC play. Playing in the nation's top college football league assures the Wildcats will play two-thirds of their games against top-level opponents, leaving four spots on the schedule. One of those spots is filled by a rivalry game with Louisville that is important to coaches, fans, players and administrators alike.
The series with the Cardinals alternates between Louisville and Lexington each season. For years when the game is played in Lexington, UK has a choice between trying to schedule an eighth home game or to hit the road for a game. When making that decision, financial considerations must be made.
A home game against an opponent from outside BCS conferences is an extremely expensive proposition. UK is forced to compete in the marketplace with schools that earn revenue from stadiums that seat 90,000 to 100,000 fans, driving the price for a home game against such an opponent to $750,000 to $1 million. Paying the price for that kind of game takes away from the money UK could invest into the football program: investments like the $6.5 million UK spent this offseason on new scoreboards in Commonwealth.
Not only that, but the administration also must consider the importance of football's financial success to other sports programs. UK is in the unique position of having a money-making men's basketball program, but football remains the most profitable of UK's 22 varsity sports.
"Football is our bread-winner," Barnhart said. "If football does not make it, it becomes very difficult for the rest of our sports programs to get along. We've got 20 sports programs that depend on the welfare of two in football and men's basketball."
Financial and competitive considerations led UK to develop the concept of playing games at neutral sites against opponents that would otherwise demand up to seven figures to play a single game in Lexington. In 2009, the Wildcats opened the season against the Miami (Oh.) RedHawks, who were considered the home team in a game that was played at Paul Brown Stadium, the home of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Other than avoiding the steep cost of paying for a home game, the reasons for creating a neutral site game were threefold. First of all, the raucous road environment of a game played on an opponent's campus that becomes the biggest game of that team's season, which is not something Barnhart wants to subject the team to.
"I think it's preferable to us," Barnhart said. "It's always more difficult to play that game in a Bowling Green or in Oxford. Those are hard venues to play in. Your crowd has no chance to get tickets and it becomes a very hostile environment for your team."
Although Miami (Oh.) would have liked the chance to play a home game against a major conference opponent, the neutral site game affords the opportunity for the school to generate more revenue.
Thirdly, playing a game in a professional stadium is a treat for current players and an enticing possibility for recruits.
"Our kids like to play in pro venues," Barnhart said. "They get the feel of what it's like to play in that venue and line up in the locker room of the Bengals or the Titans or whoever it happens to be."
Over 40,000 fans attended that 2009 season opener, many of which were Kentucky fans who otherwise would have been unable to go. The success of that first venture into playing at a neutral venue emboldened the administration to attempt it again against Western Kentucky in Nashville. Barnhart acknowledged that the attendance this time around was a disappointment, but only because of the circumstances surrounding the game.
"We have tried this twice," Barnhart said. "It worked relatively well for us up in Cincinnati. This time, (it was) not as successful, but more borne out of the date. If the date had been different, we would have been fine."
The date was something that was beyond the control of anyone at UK. On the weekend of the season opener, Tennessee State owned the first right of refusal to play at LP Field on Saturday. They exercised that right, which left Thursday, Friday and Sunday as possibilities for when the game would be played.
"Television was going to pick up Thursday night and Sunday would have given us a short week coming into this weekend with Central Michigan," Barnhart said. "Also, the SEC has traditionally refrained from playing on Friday nights to protect high school football. That left Thursday night as the only viable option."
It was then decided by ESPN that the game would be played at 9:15 p.m. ET on ESPNU, which created a "perfect storm" of variables that made for underwhelming attendance. Although the attendance left something to be desired, Barnhart does not believe the game to be an indictment of the scheduling strategy.
"It was clearly not what we had hoped," Barnhart said, "but having said that, we have gotten two home games out of this home-neutral piece against opponents that will hopefully benefit in the long haul and we played in two venues that our kids want to play in."
As for those that call the situation to be addressed by simply playing a more difficult non-conference slate, it is important to recognize that UK's approach to non-conference play is similar to the rest of in the SEC. Recognizing the challenges of an eight-game conference schedule, eight of the other 11 teams in the SEC play three of their four non-conference games against non-BCS opponents similar to the ones that UK schedules.
Take Florida for example, who plays an annual rivalry game against Florida State, much like UK plays Louisville each season. Florida's other three non-conference games in 2011 are against Florida Atlantic, UAB and Furman.
Barnhart, though, is unwilling to rule out the possibility of more high-profile non-conference games in the future. The prospect will be evaluated year-to-year as UK focuses on preparing for SEC play in the non-conference portion of the schedule.
"I think there are so many moving pieces right now it's hard to gauge," Barnhart. "We'll gauge more of that two or three years down the road, maybe the same time we have addressed some of those depth issues that we talked about."
Those moving pieces come in the form of the conference realignment talk that punctuates nearly all conversations about the future of college athletics. The implications of possible realignment are unclear at this point, leaving more questions than answers.
"There's going to be a lot of stuff that goes on in terms of conference realignment," Barnhart said. "You've got some stuff going on in the world today and I think a lot will be predicated on how that plays out. Is there conference realignment? Are we going to be asked to play nine conference games? Are we going to be at 12 regular season games? Will there be more to it, less to it?"
For all that realignment could change, Barnhart and the administration's commitment to positioning the football program to compete at the highest level will remain.
"We've got to give our fans some excitement," Barnhart said. "We have a responsibility to give them something to get excited about and travel for and we get that. I think people think they're the only ones that care, but we do this because we want to compete and we want to win. It is absolutely about competing for championships. That's what we are all here to do."