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Creating signature Commonwealth traditions

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Photo by Britney Howard, UK Athletics Photo by Britney Howard, UK Athletics
The feedback we have received through BBN First has ranged from big picture all the way to the minutest of details.

As Mitch Barnhart has written before, nearly all of those suggestions have been constructive. Already, you've helped us shape a new loyalty rewards program and establish priorities as we move forward with our Fan Experience Committee.

Among the topics we'll be addressing in the coming weeks are music selections and parking, but first we want to hear more from you about something that has come up frequently in your emails and comments.

You want game day at Commonwealth Stadium to be special. You want it to feel like Kentucky. You want traditions that reflect that.

One fan, Tom, said it best.

"You don't create a tradition... it is something that builds over time. That said, it wouldn't hurt for this group to identify a few of the traditions we do have and then experiment with things... those that catch on, keep 'em and those that don't, drop 'em."

With your help, we're going to start experimenting.

First off, we're going after the break before the fourth quarter. Recognizing how memorable this point in the game can be, we want to create a signature moment for it.

As we began to toy with ideas, another fan email caught our attention. This one came from Ross.

"I think we need something unburied from our past and make it relevant to students and the fan base as a whole. We need more things to make the game day experience uniquely Kentucky."

Inspired by this, we started thinking about "My Old Kentucky Home," the most uniquely Kentucky song there is.

The song has always been an important part of game day. It's been played by the band pregame in recent years, but we believe it could have an even bigger impact if everyone comes to their feet to sing "My Old Kentucky Home" right before the start of the fourth quarter.

Moving "My Old Kentucky Home," however, is just one option. We're not taking anything off the table, whether we're talking about the third quarter/fourth quarter break or any other point in the game.

Before we talk about some of the other ideas you've given us, let's take a look at the traditions we already have:

  • "C-A-T-S" cheer
  • Air Raid siren
  • "It's football time in the Bluegrass!" pregame
  • Call to the Post pregame
  • "First Down Kentucky!"
  • Wildcat mascot pushups after UK scores

Here are some ideas we're considering based on feedback you have already sent:

  • Slowing down the "C-A-T-S" cheer with the band's involvement
  • Roving pep band pregame to different tailgating lots and in game to different sections
  • Using "Go Big Blue!" cheer after kickoff instead of "C-A-T-S"

As you can see, we've had a lot to talk about. That's why we need your feedback.

What do you think about moving "My Old Kentucky Home?" Do you have any other ideas for a pre-fourth quarter tradition? Do you have input on how to improve the traditions we already have or the ones we are talking about creating? What are we missing?

We want to hear from you. Like you, we want Commonwealth Stadium to be a special place on fall Saturdays. Submit a comment using the form on UKathletics.com/BBNfirst or by emailing BBNfirst@uky.edu to help us make that happen.

With the announcement of several games over the last few months, everyone has known for some time now that Kentucky's 2014-15 nonconference schedule was going to be special.

Just how special became clear on Wednesday with the release of UK's full nonconference slate.

Kentucky will play 10 opponents who made the postseason in 2014, seven NCAA Tournament teams and a handful of programs who have legitimate hopes of making a run at the Final Four during this upcoming season.

UK will play bluebloods like Kansas and North Carolina, continue arguably the greatest rivalry in college basketball with Louisville, and make neutral-site trips to the United Center in Chicago and Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, home to two of the Cats' exhilarating games during their magical 2014 NCAA Tournament run and the site of the 2015 Final Four.

Like last year, Kentucky will kick off the season with back-to-back home games at Rupp Arena, this time against Grand Canyon University (Nov. 14) and Buffalo (Nov. 16).

John Calipari is hoping the home games will prepare his team for an early-season showdown with Kansas on Nov. 18 in Indianapolis. The matchup with the Jayhawks, who trail only UK for the NCAA's most all-time wins, is a part of the State Farm Champions Classic. It's the fourth straight year Kentucky has participated in the event.

The Cats' stay on the road will be brief as they will return for an extended home stand. Over the course of nearly a month, UK will play eight games within the friendly confines of Rupp Arena. First up will be Boston (Nov. 21), followed by Montana State (Nov. 23), UT Arlington (Nov. 25) and Providence (Nov. 30). Kentucky played and beat the latter two last season.

The schedule then heats up at the start of December.

The Cats, who return eight scholarship players from last season's national runner-up team, will face off with an equally experienced Texas team on Dec. 3 before taking on Eastern Kentucky (Dec. 7), an NCAA Tournament team a year ago, and Columbia (Dec. 10).

The final three games of the nonconference schedule are as good as it gets. North Carolina concludes UK's mega home stand on Dec. 13 before the Cats head to Chicago to face UCLA for the inaugural CBS Sports Classic on Dec. 20.

Finally, Kentucky will close out the nonconference schedule with its annual rivalry game with Louisville on Dec. 27 at the KFC Yum! Center. This year's game is being dubbed as the Basketball Hall of Fame Shootout. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the nonprofit Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

UK's 2014 Southeastern Conference schedule will feature nine home games and nine away games, which will be announced at a later date. It's the second third straight year the SEC will feature an 18-game schedule.

Prior to the regular season, the Cats will host a pair of exhibition games at Rupp Arena. The first will be Nov. 2 against Pikeville followed by Georgetown College on Nov. 7. Both are in-state schools. Big Blue Madness is set for Oct. 17 and the annual Blue-White Scrimmage will be on Oct. 27.

Complete games times and TV information will be released at a later date.

A by-the-numbers breakdown of the schedule is available below, but first a look at the full nonconference schedule.

2014-15 Men's Basketball Non-Conference Schedule (2).jpg
By the numbers

The schedule this season, as we mentioned above, is grueling.

Filled with some of the bluebloods of college basketball, opponents that made the NCAA Tournament last season and are only supposed to get better this year, and mid-majors who are expected to finish at or near the top of their league, it's hard to find a more challenging nonconference schedule than the one the Wildcats appear to have this year.

And that's not by coincidence.

Coach Cal, with the recent help of UK Deputy Director of Athletics DeWayne Peevy, has always tried to form a slate that will prepare his players for the NCAA Tournament and put them in a position to compete for a national championship. The end goal is to bolster his team's RPI, give his players the best chance to succeed and help his program obtain a favorable NCAA Tournament seed, but he must do all that while making sure he doesn't break down his players before the SEC schedule rolls around.

Doing that isn't always easy.

How many big-time games against the likes of a team like Kansas is enough? How many is too many? How many neutral-site games do you play? When do you play marquee games with such a young team? What "mid-major" opponents are going to help your RPI and not hurt it? All those things go into consideration when Calipari and his staff build the schedule.

The 2014-15 schedule uses the same formula of the last couple of years in that it mixes neutral-site games that reflect an NCAA Tournament setting with marquee matchups at home and on the road.

But this one, on paper, looks to be the best of the Calipari era.

Taking the final rankings from last year, the average RPI of UK's nonconference opponent in 2014-15 is 97.4. Six opponents on the slate finished last season in the all-important RPI top 50, including five of the final seven nonconference opponents.

Furthermore, the Cats' 13 opponents in the upcoming year posted a winning percentage of .655 last season, considerably better than the .570 winning percentage UK's 13 opponents in 2012-13 ended with and still better than last year's admirable mark of .634. Remember, Kentucky's strength of schedule last season was No. 2 in the country and this one appears to be even tougher.

But perhaps the most telling proof of the difficulty of the schedule lies in the opponents' postseason play last year. Ten of the 13 nonconference opponents were in some sort of postseason tournament last season (that does not include conference tournaments) and seven of them were in the NCAA Tournament. Five of the teams made it to the third round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament or farther.

Obviously there is no way to predict how those opponents will do next season, but the majority of UK's opponents look primed to build on their 2013-14 success.

For one, Kentucky's most high-profile opponents next season -- Kansas, Louisville, North Carolina, Texas and UCLA -- return a bulk of their major producers from a year ago. All five are expected to be in the preseason top 25 and several could be in the top 10.

But the depth of the schedule comes with teams like Providence, Eastern Kentucky and Boston. The Friars play an exciting style of basketball that brought out the best in Willie Cauley-Stein last season, EKU nearly knocked Kansas out of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, and Boston is expected to return four of its six leading scorers from its regular-season Patriot League championship squad.

It's impossible -- and unwise -- for Kentucky to avoid scheduling "mid-major" opponents, but UK can ill-afford to take those opponents lightly in 2014-15. Of UK's seven opponents from outside the so-called "major" conferences, five finished tied for third or better in 2013-14 regular-season play and one (Boston) finished atop the conference. That fits right in line with Calipari's philosophy to play teams that will content for their leagues' automatic bids.

Also of note, 13 of Kentucky's nonconference opponents will hail from 11 different conferences. UK will also play three opponents for the first time.

For those numbers and more, check out the breakdown chart below:

Opponent2014-15 recordPostseasonFinal RPIFinal ranking
(AP/Coaches)
KenPom.com
final ranking
Series historyLast meeting
Grand Canyon15-15CollegeInsider.com first round220N/A241First meetingNever met
Buffalo19-10MAC semifinals108N/A100First meetingNever met
Kansas25-10NCAA third round410/1412UK leads 21-6UK won 67-59 in 2012
Boston24-11NIT first round90N/A130UK leads 3-0UK won 91-57 in 2011
Montana State14-17None277N/A308First meetingNever met
UT Arlington15-17Sun Belt quarterfinals204N/A215UK leads 1-0UK won 105-76 in 2013
Providence23-12NCAA second round46N/A51UK leads 2-0UK won 79-65 in 2012
Texas24-11NCAA third round41N/A39UK leads 1-0UK won 86-61 in 1994
Eastern Kentucky24-10NCAA second round95N/A119UK leads 10-0UK won 78-65 in 2007
Columbia21-13CollegeInsider.com quarters127N/A123UK leads 1-0UK won 76-53 in 1948
North Carolina24-10NCAA third round2319/2127UNC leads 23-13UK lost 82-77 in 2013
UCLA28-9NCAA Sweet 161520/1515UK leads 6-4UK lost 73-68 in 2007
Louisville31-6 NCAA Sweet 16165/91UK leads 32-15UK won 74-69 in 2014



Coaches from throughout the league joined the Southeastern Conference coaches' teleconference this morning to talk about their teams as the offseason wears on. Perhaps realizing he hadn't spoken publicly in some time, John Calipari was in fine form addressing topics ranging from UK's upcoming Bahamas trip, the Rupp Arena renovation and the NBA's early-entry rules.

Here's everything he had to say, plus a bonus quote about the strength of the SEC from one of Coach Cal's peers.

Coach Cal

On his team heading into next season ...
"Well, for the first time I've had players return that had a chance to put their names in the draft, so we're in a unique situation where we have veterans. Now, granted those veterans are sophomores, two of them are juniors, but the other (six) are sophomores, it's kind of unusual for us. But I'm excited about it. The returning players and the freshmen are getting along so it's all good."

On how he hopes the trip to the Bahamas will contribute to the success he has next season ...
"Well, we're doing it a little different than most teams. Most teams don't care about what the games are and, a matter of fact, will play teams that - and we did four years ago (when) I didn't care who we played in Canada - it's just practicing. But this is going to be different in that we will be traveling with 12. Ten will play. And we are having teams come with us: the Dominican Republic national team, the professional team from France, Division I, and then the older guys from Puerto Rico. They're not the national team -- they're playing in another event -- but it's that next wave of guys that almost made the team. They call it their second team. But I'm fine with that because those guys are older. It will be hard games for us to win. But we're doing it as much for the games, which is kind of unusual."

On his thoughts of the Rupp Arena renovation being suspended ...
"I haven't really--I wasn't in town with all the stuff and really haven't read anything. I kind of got a little overview from DeWayne (Peevy), but like I said (before), I just hope everybody gets together and does what's right for the city and the university."

On how it would impact his job if he had guys for another year ...
"Let me first say this one to you: Just if you know how I am and what I'm about, if you've really followed, I would rather them say that, after my entire group gets drafted - 'Yeah, I'm not really sure he develops players and he can coach' and all that stuff; 'they were pros' - but they all get drafted. OK, I'm good with that. That doesn't bother me. Say it as long as they keep continuing to get drafted. And then when they go to the league, they're on the all-rookie teams, they're rookie of the year, they're on Olympic teams, one is the MVP of the NBA. They're prepared in that sense, and that's what we're trying to do.

"The two-year rule, the reason I say that, this cycle that we're on - and there were coaches last year that had freshmen and their primary guys were freshmen and they couldn't advance in the NCAA Tournament and said after it's so difficult. Yeah, it is. Well, let's start five freshmen and try to do it. So to do this every year is, in this environment at Kentucky, is, I don't want to say impossible because for five years we've done it, but we did have a year when Nerlens (Noel) got hurt. If he doesn't get hurt, we're probably a Sweet 16 team. But he does get hurt and now we're an NIT team. Not only are we an NIT team, we lose in the first round. It's just a dangerous thing for the coach. Now, for our players, I'm happy as heck. If it goes to two years, I think they'll be better prepared, but you cannot do that unless the NCAA is going to do things along with the NBA if kids are asked to stay another year. I mean, are you going to do the cost of living? Are you going to cover their insurance? What about loss-of-value insurance that's really expensive? What about flying them back and forth once or twice a year? Why would we not do that? What about their families being flown to the NCAA events, the championship events, with the team? Why would we not do all those things? So we finally, after five years of absolute arm-wrangling, got the food right so that we can feed these kids without feeling we're going to go to jail, that we're criminals for feeding them. So those are the kind of things that have to be done. It's not just, make this about kids. We need to do stuff with combines so kids get the right information. You don't want a kid to leave and not get drafted. And if a kid should leave, he should leave. If he's a first-round pick, if he's a lottery pick, he should leave. Don't have him stay so you win more games, then the next year he's in a worse position. But if he's a second-round pick and not getting drafted and he's in a combine where the NBA can tell him that, they come back to school now. So there's a lot of things that we need to do and we're moving in that direction. Now, it's taken 40 years but we're moving in that direction now."

On whether more kids would go to Europe if the age limit went to 20 ...
"No. I don't, but here's the thing: You have to understand, that's between the NBA and the Players Association. We have to be on the side of the players, on the side of the students. We have to be on their side, which is, how do we get them the information so they make the right choices? How do we do things that we treat them with more dignity, that we treat them more fairly? OK, again, those are the things that we need to do. We have no control - none - on what the NBA and the Players Association agree to. I said to the NBA: Instead of a four-year contract, make it a three-year contract so by staying in school it doesn't hurt them. They still get to the money the same time, the big contracts the same time as they would have if they'd stayed in school two year. But, are we willing to do things? Are we willing to maybe have those parents request loans directly from the NBA that they have to pay back when they go to the NBA? What about that as a solution to some of the stuff? So there's all kind of things out there. And let me say this: It's not at the expense of academics. We're here, we've had four years. This past semester were a 3.11 (grade-point average). Our APR going into next year, which means every kid we've had has finished here in good academic standing. Obviously, we've had a 3.0 for the last four years. We've graduated 10 players. We've brought three players back. Our kids sign four-year deals if they leave after one or two years, the scholarship is still waiting on them. We're doing things outside of that to make sure we're taking care of what we can within the rules and going above and beyond to do that. But there's still other things that need to be done."

On what he tells players about what will happen if they enter the NBA Draft early ...

"Well, I don't do it that way. What I do is I give them the information. I have them get information directly from the NBA office. I give them information (from) GMs who are friends of mine in the NBA and say, 'This is where it appears. Check with the NBA and I'm with you with whatever you do. If you're a late first-rounder, can you deal with (it)?' I give them the downside. 'Are you going to be able to deal with being a second-round pick because that could happen. If you can't deal with that, then you come back.' If you say, 'I'm OK if that happens,' then you can think strongly about leaving. 'If you want to be a top-10 pick, you're not right now and you're going to have to come back to be a top-10 pick. But if that's OK to be the 18th or the 20th or 17th, I'm good with it.' I literally spend five minutes with them. There are no four-hour brainwashing, all the staff beating them down. Five minutes. And you can talk to all the kids. Matter of fact I thought Willie (Cauley-Stein) was leaving. The conversation we had the next morning after the national championship game was congratulating. I'm proud of you. You were a football player two years ago. No one knew who you were. You weren't a McDonald's All-American. You weren't, 'He was one-and-done before he got there.' That's not what he was and he was a top-15 pick. And he came in my office the following day and said, 'I want to come back.' I go, 'What?' He said, 'One, I'm having a ball. Two, I'm not ready for that league to do what I want to do. Three, I want to win a 'ship before I leave.' I said, 'That's good reasons to come back.' So the conversations I had with guys are kind of like that."

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin

On the strength of the SEC ...
"I'm tired of this (fallacy) and myth that our league is no good. I'm tired of it. I think it's disrespectful to the coaches in this league. I think anytime you try to convince Billy (Donovan) or Cal or Mike Anderson, guys that have had tremendous success everywhere they've been, Bruce Pearl now that he's back in the league, Billy Kennedy, the successes he's had - just keep going on down the line - the successes that they've had in their careers and trying to say that their success right now is not very good because our league is not very good, I think that's a little disrespectful and untrue. Our league is extremely hard. I've said it for a couple years: We were in transition and I think our league is now starting to take shape. I think coaches are establishing their programs for those of us that, we weren't where it needed to be. Kevin Stallings, Billy, guys that have been in the league forever, they're always going to have programs that are going to line up and go. And I think you're going to start seeing our league move forward as we continue to stabilize programs such as ours."

Men's basketball's trip to the national championship game helped lead UK Athletics to a record Directors' Cup finish in 2013-14. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Men's basketball's trip to the national championship game helped lead UK Athletics to a record Directors' Cup finish in 2013-14. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
We have been together on this journey for 12 years now, and what a ride it's been. We have won national championships together and celebrated All-American performances. We have played in some of the best games the University of Kentucky has ever seen and had some of the best players to wear the Blue and White.

Today, we close the book on one of the most extraordinary seasons in UK Athletics history.

We received the news this morning that we came in 11th in the national all-sports standings, far and away our best finish in the 21-year history of the Directors' Cup. In doing so, we achieved our goal of becoming a top-15 athletics department a year ahead of the schedule set forth in our 15 by 15 by 15 Plan.

We did it with remarkable efforts across the program. Eighteen of our 22 teams contributed to our final point total, with seven finishing in the top 10 in their respective sports and 15 in the top 20. All those moments we'll remember for so long - Aaron Harrison shooting men's basketball to the national championship game, Kelsey Nunley pitching softball to the Women's College World Series and A.J. Reed proving himself the best baseball player in the country - made this happen.

Every step of the way, the Big Blue Nation has been there. On game day, you create the best home-court and home-field advantage in college sports. Outside of competition, we rely on you just the same. You might not be there for practices or workouts, but we call on your passion constantly.

We've needed that inspiration, because it's taken an incredible amount of work to reach this point. Our student-athletes, coaches and staff have embraced an ambitious set of goals and attacked it. In doing so, they have shown yet again how much a great group of people working together can accomplish on the field, all while excelling in the classroom and the community. I want to thank and congratulate them for all they have done in turning what seemed like a far-off goal in November 2008 into a reality.

Finishing in the top 15, of course, is an accomplishment worth celebrating, but our journey is far from over. We have moved into the same neighborhood as the best schools in the country, but we aren't content with that.

We want UK to be the best athletics department in America. Just as I challenged our student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans to pursue a goal many thought impossible six years ago, I call on everyone involved with UK Athletics to seize the momentum we built in one of the best years we've ever had and turn it into something even better.

Many of our student-athletes are already on campus for strength and conditioning. Our coaches -- the best group I have been around in my three decades in college athletics -- are recruiting and honing their strategies for next season. Our staff is working hard to make sure our teams have all they need to compete for championships.

Before long, we'll open the 2014-15 season. Let's make it one to remember.

'Til the Battle Is Won,
Mitch Barnhart

Julius Randle and James Young were chosen with the No. 7 and 17 picks in the NBA Draft, respectively, on Thursday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Julius Randle and James Young were chosen with the No. 7 and 17 picks in the NBA Draft, respectively, on Thursday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Julius Randle smiled when he heard his name called.

He dished out hugs to his mother, his mentor and his head coach as he walked to the podium. He looked the part of a happy draftee when he shook hands with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

It wasn't until ESPN analyst Jay Williams asked Randle whether he thought he should have been selected earlier than No. 7 overall that he admitted to another emotion.

"I think I should have went higher for sure, but the teams that passed on me will regret it," Randle said.

It wasn't pride or false bravado that made Randle feel that way either. The newest Los Angeles Laker and UK's ninth lottery pick in the last five years simply believed he was the best player in the 2014 NBA Draft and plans to prove it.

Don't think mistake Randle's drive for bitterness though. He's happy to become a Laker.

"I was offered some great advice before this: It's not where you start; it's where you finish," Randle said. "And L.A.' s a perfect spot for me. I'm really happy to be going there."

When Randle's name was called, John Calipari was heard on the ESPN broadcast telling Randle Los Angeles is exactly where he hoped the bruising forward who led UK to the national championship game as a freshman would go.

"I get to go play in a great city, a great franchise that expects nothing but championships, great market, great organization," Randle said. "And Kobe Bryant, my idol growing up. So I couldn't be more ecstatic about where I'm going."

Similarly, the Lakers were elated when the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Randle -- who averaged 15 points and 10.4 rebounds in his lone UK season -- was still available.

"We had him on our board much better than a No. 7 selection, so we were surprised when he was there," Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said. "When we do the draft, we rank according to what we think is going to be the best player going forward. So he was the best player on the board. We didn't think he'd be there. He's a player that will bode well in Los Angeles. He competes hard. He plays hard. He loves contact. Great kid. Those are attributes that anybody would love to have on an NBA team."

As Bryant, Randle's idol, mentioned soon after the Lakers' selection on Twitter, Randle goes from the school with the most tradition in college basketball to a professional franchise with comparable tradition.

James Young, Randle's teammate, will make a similar transition. Ten picks after Randle went off the board, the athletic swingman was tabbed by the Boston Celtics with the No. 17 overall pick, where he will join fellow former Wildcats Rajon Rondo and Keith Bogans.

"The Lakers (and) Celtics are the (two) most storied programs in the NBA (and) our guys are headed to both," Coach Cal tweeted. "What could be better?"

In the Green Room with Randle and Calipari, Young was excited when he learned he was Boston-bound.

"I'm very excited to be drafted by this organization and I can't wait to get started," Young said according to the Louisville Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker. "It's been a long time coming."

With Randle and Young's selection, UK has now had multiple first-round selections in all five years of the Calipari era. Since the draft went to two rounds in 1989, UK is the only program to accomplish the feat. All told, UK has had two No. 1 picks, 15 first-round picks and 19 total players selected in the NBA Draft during Coach Cal's time in Lexington and 110 in the history of the program.

Succeed and Proceed indeed.

k fund big blue initiative.jpg In a matter of months, the time will come for you to choose your seats in The New Commonwealth Stadium.

Before the reseating process begins in the fall, an important date is approaching quickly: the June 30 K Fund priority point deadline.

The order in which fans will select their 2015 seats will be based on K Fund priority ranking as of June 30, 2014. The more priority points you have, the sooner you will be able to select the seats that best fit your needs. Visit this page to see a snapshot of current priority rankings.

With the deadline now less than a week away, fans can boost their priority rankings and participate in a philanthropic effort to address rising scholarship costs through the Big Blue Initiative. All K Fund donors should have received a form in the mail in May. To participate, fill out that form and increase your annual giving by 15 percent by June 30.

By joining the Big Blue Initiative, you will receive the normal three K Fund points per $100 donation, plus an additional five bonus points. It's a great way to impact the lives of UK student-athletes and improve your position for 2015 seat selections.

If you have any questions or are unable to locate your form, contact the K Fund at (859) 257-6300.

UK announced on Tuesday that freshman Trey Lyles is recovering from a medical procedure on his left leg. The recovery process will force him to miss UK's games as part of a trip to the Bahamas in August, but Lyles is expected to return in time for practice in October.

Lyles will join junior Willie Cauley-Stein on the sideline. Cauley-Stein underwent surgery after the season to repair a stress fracture in his left foot.

Soon after the news came out, John Calipari took to Twitter to talk about it.




Lyles, a 6-foot-10 forward from Indianapolis, Ind., is a member of UK's highly touted incoming freshman class. He and his three classmates -- Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis and Karl-Anthony Towns -- are on campus along with a deep and talented crop of returnees from last year's national runner-up team.

UK signed a 15-year, $210 million multimedia rights agreement with JMI Sports on Monday. (Jake Most, UK Athletics) UK signed a 15-year, $210 million multimedia rights agreement with JMI Sports on Monday. (Jake Most, UK Athletics)
As he cast a vision for the future when he set foot on campus, Mitch Barnhart had more questions than answers for himself and his staff.

Those questions, though, were posed more as challenges than anything else.

"If we had proper resources, what were the expectations for our programs?" Barnhart said. "Could we be better than who we were? Would we be able to grow our programs and give opportunities for our student-athletes to be competitive in the most difficult league in America and nationally? Could we do that?"

The answer, 12 years later, is a resounding yes.

Poised to finish in the top 15 of the national all-sports standings for the first time in department history, UK is competitive across all sports unlike ever before, but Barnhart isn't content. He's intent on taking UK Athletics to the next level.

That, however, can't happen without help.

"As we do that, you've got to have partners, and you have to have people that you want to work with," Barnhart said.

On Monday, Barnhart identified a new partner.

UK awarded its athletics and campus multimedia rights to JMI Sports, signing a 15-year, $210 million agreement -- one of the most valuable of its kind in college sports history -- that will begin in April 2015. The deal, according to Barnhart, represents an important step toward guaranteeing the financial strength that have allowed UK to give its student-athletes and coaches the resources necessary to go to that next level.

"We're excited about what this means for the University of Kentucky and the stability it provides for our program going forward and just the unbelievable opportunities we think it creates for us as an institution, not just an athletic department," Barnhart said.

The agreement represents a change for UK. The school's current deal -- 10 years, $80.5 million -- with IMG Sports expires next April, so a Request for Proposals was issued this winter to prepare in case a transition would be necessary.

UK's priorities were threefold.

"First and foremost, we want to have a network that our fans can absolutely stay in contact with University of Kentucky athletic teams, the successes that we have, the things that we're doing," Barnhart said.

That will be achieved by continuing to provide a best-in-class radio network. JMI Sports, as part of its proposal, committed to maintaining and developing UK's affiliate lineup, retaining current announcers like Tom Leach, Mike Pratt and Neil Price and even potentially leasing and operating a station of its own in Lexington and/or Louisville.

"We have the opportunity now to reach places through the radio stations that we have in our footprint or in our inventory, whatever you want to call it," Barnhart said. "We have incredible opportunities, I think, to give our fans what they want, and that's to listen to the great talent that we have on the radio, the opportunity to see our teams play when they're not at home."

Next, UK set out to address its facilities, at least in part, through the RFP.

The department has made tremendous strides in recent years -- from the ongoing renovation of Commonwealth Stadium to John Cropp Stadium to the soon-to-be-completed soccer complex -- but Barnhart's facilities checklist remains incomplete, with the baseball stadium, indoor tennis facility and Memorial Coliseum upgrades at the top.

Helping on that front will a $29.4 million signing bonus UK will receive from JMI Sports over the first two years of the media rights agreement.

Finally, UK Athletics sought to strengthen its relationship with the university it represents with its new multimedia rights deal, both in securing its self-sustaining financial status and in adding on-campus multimedia rights to the RFP.

"When you talk about campus rights, we're looking at the non-athletic side, and so looking at opportunities to expand on relationships with existing partners that we may have in the athletic enterprise but new partners," Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Eric Monday said. "It could be everything from digital signage opportunities on the campus and way-finding like another institution is doing. It could be access to students. It could be internships. It could be employment opportunities, guest speakers that we bring to the campus."

Combining those three priorities and an unmatched $210 million offer, JMI Sports was the obvious choice when the RFP process reached its conclusion this spring.

Founded in 2006, the company is a relative newcomer to the industry and UK is its first multimedia rights client. JMI Sports, however, is hardly entering uncharted waters given its experience.

Developer, philanthropist and former San Diego Padres owner John Moores founded the company with Chief Executive Officer Erik Judson. Judson is experienced in athletics himself, having managed major development projects like the Padres' Petco Park and the University of Oregon's Matthew Knight Arena. If that wasn't enough, JMI Sports hired former Greenup, Ky., native Tom Stultz as president, who worked closely with UK during his time as IMG College vice president.

"I think our experience is more than enough of a foundation, but I think actually our perspective is what is going to grow the business, and the approach we are going to take is going to have a flagship in Kentucky that we're going to give a tremendous amount of focus to," Judson said. "Our organization takes this very seriously, and I think the financial contribution certainly speaks to that, but Tom and I personally are going to be involved in this property every day."

The agreement with UK represents JMI Sports' first foray into multimedia rights and some may see that as a risk for a brand as well-established as UK. Barnhart, on the other hand, sees it as an opportunity to take another step toward his vision of building the best athletics department in the nation.

"I don't think that we miss a beat," Barnhart said. "As a matter of fact, I think we get better, and I love the focus that they say we're their flagship and we're their folks, and I like that a lot."

For a week in late May, a group of three Kentucky football players -- Bud Dupree, Landon Foster and Braylon Heard -- went one of two service trips to Ethiopia sponsored each summer by the UK Athletics Department accompanied by Senior Associate Athletics Director for External Affairs Jason Schlafer and Senior Athletic Trainer Gabe Amponsah. Foster, a junior punter, described his experience in a series of diary entries for Cat Scratches that will be published this week. Please note that these posts are Foster's personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky and UK Athletics.

For his final entry, Foster writes about his last hours in Ethiopia and reflects on a trip he'll never forget.


Today was a very calm day, as it was our final day. The only thing on the schedule was to get a little more shopping done and we were all able to find exactly what we were looking for to take back to the States as souvenirs and gifts for friends and family. It was very fun but a little annoying having to negotiate the prices on everything, even for something as small as a plastic bracelet.

After another good lunch, we headed back for the guest house to pack up for our flight. I had packed most of my stuff with the idea that I was going to give it away, so about half of my clothes and food and other usable items went into a bag that I would then give to Mark to donate to Dejene or any other place that he felt needed the help. We also had a team debrief with among all of us discussing what we learned and how the reality of situations differed from our expectations. Mark also handed out a packet of papers for us to look over including ways to sponsor a child, which I filled out to sponsor my man, Dejene. It was a very quick debrief, as we were all so tired and ready to get packed up to get to the airport.

We packed our luggage onto the bus and set out for the airport. Once we arrived, which was around 6:30 p.m. Ethiopian time, saying our goodbyes to our new friends thousands of miles away home was difficult, but it was reassuring knowing we could stay in contact through Facebook. After checking our luggage, heading up to our gate and going through security, it was time to board.

I am now writing this on the plane forcing myself to stay awake as it is around 10:45 p.m. We took off about 30 minutes ago, and I am hoping for a smooth trip to Rome, then D.C., and then to Cincinnati, which is where we will be picked up by a University of Kentucky van to bring us back to the football facility.

This was an unbelievable experience that I will never forget. Seeing the poverty and desperation firsthand is tough to take in, but that is the reality that the people we met live in each and every day. The toughest part about it is the fact that most of the poverty is due to the corruption of the government, and these people are unfortunately just born into this situation. I especially feel for the children, as they didn't have a choice as to where they would be born, and many of them become orphans by the time they are 12 or 13 and are forced to live on the streets. I've learned to appreciate absolutely everything I have been blessed with in my life, even the little things as little as running water and a toilet or even a mattress to sleep on, let alone a clean pair of sheets or clothes.


I am so thankful for the opportunity to see this country and meet the people I was able to meet, as it has forever changed my life and understanding the true difficulties life can bring -- not just a shanked punt or a B in the classroom. Ethiopians fight for survival, literally, as they spend a majority of their day searching for food to provide enough nourishment so they can survive. It's difficult to be able to just write or type my reflection of the trip as there was so much to take in, but the only way that truly describes it is this: Their situation shows true desperation, while we are the most blessed nation on this Earth.


For a week in late May, a group of three Kentucky football players -- Bud Dupree, Landon Foster and Braylon Heard -- went one of two service trips to Ethiopia sponsored each summer by the UK Athletics Department accompanied by Senior Associate Athletics Director for External Affairs Jason Schlafer and Senior Athletic Trainer Gabe Amponsah. Foster, a junior punter, described his experience in a series of diary entries for Cat Scratches that will be published this week. Please note that these posts are Foster's personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky and UK Athletics.

Today, Foster writes about a morning spent with a local youth soccer team on the Wildcats' last full day in Ethiopia.


Today was another very enjoyable day, as we were able to spend much more time with teenagers closer to our age. After breakfast, we traveled to a local private school. We were greeted by a teenage soccer team sporting blue Nike dri-fit tee shirts with white letters spelling out "Kentucky" on the front and their numbers on the back. The soccer team was there because Jason sponsors one of the players on the team, Natnael, and he invited his whole team to spend time with us.

The first part of the day was introducing ourselves to the soccer team and getting to know them. We ventured over to a shady area on school property where we could all sit down. After sitting down, the man in charge of the school talked to us and explained the whole mission of the school, as well as how many children are parts of the institution and how many are sponsored vs. those who are still looking for a sponsor.

While sitting down with the kids, they brought out the three most recent trophies the team has won, all won within the past year or so. Also, several women came out and made coffee, which is a ritual in Ethiopia. The other women then followed suit and offered up popcorn and roasted grain, which are also both commonly served during the daily coffee-drinking ceremonies.

During that time, we also sat with the team and enjoyed each other's company. A conversation about soccer sprung up and of course I jumped right in asking each of their favorite teams and players. Most of the kids were wearing pants affiliating themselves with some European soccer club. There, I was told that I looked like both Gareth Bale and David Beckham. I wish people back in the States believed I looked like David Beckham, too. Other than those conversations, we joked around and got to know each other, but the center of the conversation was always soccer.
 
After introductions, we headed across the parking lot, grabbed a few soccer balls from our parked bus and continued down a hill past the school and to the soccer field. Again, this soccer field was all dirt and rocks with wooden posts outlining the goals, although this one was a bit bigger. We started by juggling, then moved on to a more organized set of drills, which brought very vivid memories of my travel soccer days to mind. After a few of the passing drills, we got our teams ready, and we added their team coach to our roster (very much needed).

This team was very good and very well organized. We went down 3-1 but came back and tied it 3-3 with only 2 minutes or so left in the game. We then played a golden-goal overtime session, and we scored a few minutes in and got the victory which brought our Ethiopian soccer tour record to 3-1 - not too shabby for some American football players...and three Ethiopian footballers. It really was an enjoyable and entertaining game and it created that much more respect between us all.

After the game, we were all very hungry. Conveniently, we had a pizza party planned for lunch. The pizza was the best pizza that we had in Ethiopia: a meat lover's pizza topped with pepperoni, sausage and chicken. After passing out pizza to the team and savoring some ourselves, we thanked the team for giving us their time and hoped and prayed for their well-being in the future. A surprise gift was in store for Jason, as the ultra-shy teenager that he sponsors spoke in front of the entire group on behalf of his team thanking us for everything. It truly was a special moment.

Once we finished lunch, we headed out to a small zoo to see some Ethiopian lions. I've been told that you ultimately have to face your fears to get over them, so this was the time to truly get over my lifelong fear of Scar from "The Lion King." Ethiopian Lions are the only type of lions that have the dark brownish/black manes, which is their main distinguishing characteristic. It was amazing getting to see those huge animals in person, as well some monkeys and very unique deer, including two small baby deer.

After the zoo, we headed out to do some shopping and concluded the day by eating dinner. We then were dropped off at a guest house where Brett Johnson is staying. We started off by playing Ping-Pong, but the burning desire for some Wi-Fi access left Bud, Braylon and myself stranded on the steps of the stairs, as it seemed to be the only definite hot spot. After spending a little over an hour at that house, we started walking back towards a main road, and along the way Braylon screamed like a little girl (typical SEC running back style) after seeing a two-inch wide frog leap across his feet on the group. Even after that terrifying moment, we eventually reached the main road and successfully caught a taxi back to our own guest house.
 

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