COMMENTARY: Fix Cards vs. Cats Mistake Now

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Now that it’s clear this year’s Louisville-Kentucky college football game will not be televised nationally by a mainstream network, isn’t it time to admit moving the game to the third week of the season was a mistake? If so, let’s fix it for the future. There’s no need to wait another day.
The latest agreement between the two schools calls for the annual rivalry to be played the third game of the season when it’s staged at UK’s Commonwealth Stadium, and on the first game of the year when it’s held at U of L’s Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
The company line being offered by Wildcat head coach Rich Brooks is that moving out of the season-opening slot will give his Cats a better chance to be ready for the clash with the Cards, who have won the last four meetings and seven of the last eight (including a 59-28 win last year, pictured left). Louisville settled for the change because it wanted to make sure the series continued, and UK was adamant there must be a switch.
Now, however, evidence is mounting that it was a mistake to alter what was becoming a growing and popular Labor Day-week/files/storyimages/tradition among fans from both schools, who seem equally and increasingly miffed by the move.
For the past several years, ESPN has selected the game for one of its prime platforms, giving both U of L and UK significant national exposure for recruits as well as for fans and alumni from around the country. This year, the best that folks can hope for is a spot on ESPN Classic, a network that’s extremely limited in its reach. Barring that, it’s likely destined for a delayed broadcast that won’t even reach some parts of the Commonwealth, let alone the recruiting hotbeds in Florida, Ohio, Texas and California, and the various alumni outposts around the nation. In the end, that can’t be good news for Brooks or new U of L head coach Steve Kragthorpe.
ESPN’s reluctance to carry this year’s contest on one of its main platforms was predictable. As the first game of the year, it was one of only a handful of attractive match-ups available. Played on the third weekend, it’s just one of many options – some with more inter-sectional appeal in more populated areas than the Cards and Cats can offer. When in doubt, ESPN tends to favor games that cross time zones or have particularly appeal in major markets such as Chicago, Detroit and New York.
Let’s face it, with projected early-round NFL draft picks like quarterbacks Brian Brohm and Andre Woodson and receivers Harry Douglas and Keenan Burton competing, and with the Cards picked as a top-10 team and the Wildcats coming off their best season in years, The Game would still have been a sure-bet selection for top coverage had it been scheduled as the season opener for both. Instead, it gets lost in the shuffle.
What about Rich Brooks’ suggestion that the move will give his team a better chance to win? UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart dutifully backed his coach on this issue, but to date, there’s been no logical reason given to support such a philosophy.
U of L will have exactly the same amount of time to prepare and will have the same number of warm-up games (two) before the UK contest. Also, there are far more variables for both teams playing in the third week of the season – a far greater chance that an injury or two suffered in the first two games could dramatically affect the outcome.
The reasons both teams originally agreed to the opening-day plan and began play in 1994 (pictured left) were sound: Since the teams were in different conferences, a late-season clash (like Auburn-Alabama) wasn’t feasible. Instead, the opener would focus attention on college football in Kentucky like nothing else ever had. It would be an event and a celebration, not just another game. It had significant potential to generate new revenue and new interest for both teams. It would be an unveiling of what both programs would offer for the new season. Both teams would be undefeated and at full strength, and both teams could bounce back from a loss and still have 11 or 12 games to produce an excellent season, even a BCS bowl bid.
Now, due to the date change, the benefits to both schools have been watered down, and that seems to have become a disappointment for fans of both schools.
Even if Kentucky does defeat Louisville this time, it will have nothing to do with the date of the game; it will be because the Wildcats were simply better that day. And unfortunately for UK, the Cats will gain only a fraction of an advantage because too few people will witness it. If Kentucky loses in the third week of the season, the Wildcats will have to quickly prepare for a crucial Southeastern Conference game at Arkansas seven days later, rather than regroup with a couple of easier games as the Cats have previously.
Clearly, the change from opening day for the UofL-UK bash still finds members of the statewide media struggling to make sense of it. More important, it has fans of both teams wondering aloud why something that was so good was altered.
When the contract creating the modern day series between Louisville and Kentucky was signed, it was done so due to the interest of the people of the Commonwealth. Fans were ready for it. They embraced it. They made it a unique event, whether Big Blue quarterback Tim Couch was racking up points against the Cards, or U of L was dominating with its running game.
If it truly is a game for the people, then the people should be heard. If changing the date is a mistake, then fans should politely demand it be returned to its original spot as the season opener for both teams.
Now is the time when future schedules can be most easily adjusted.  Why wait? Let’s fix it now – once and for all.

NOTE: Daily columnist Ron Steiner also appears on the Red & Blue Review, a weekly statewide TV sports show (Insight Ch. 2). He’s also published weekly in the Voice-Tribune and is a guest each Friday (5:45 p.m.) on the Cardinal Insider radio program (WKRD, 790AM). He can be reached by e-mail at ron@louisville.com.

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