Kentucky fans more focused on basketball than football

Friday, November 8, 2013 | 10:01 p.m. CST; updated 2:57 p.m. CST, Saturday, November 9, 2013
"This is a basketball school. Football is an afterthought," Kentucky junior Ashley Ferguson said Friday in the UK student center. Even with the 8-1 Missouri Tigers in Lexington for a Southeastern Conference football matchup on Saturday, on Friday night most Wildcats fans' attention was on Rupp Arena, where the No. 1-ranked Wildcats basketball team faced the University of North Carolina-Asheville in the first game of the season.

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky fans are excited for the game.

But their focus isn’t on Missouri. It’s on North Carolina-Asheville. On Friday night, the Wildcats football stadium parking lot will be quiet, while the basketball arena across town will be filled with 23,500 people screaming their heads off at the season opener.

Mike Sammons will be in Section 231.

"Basketball pays the bills," Sammons said. "That’s what this university is built on. Football takes a backseat."

Kentucky football plays Missouri at 11 a.m. CST Saturday. Sammons won’t be there. The Columbus, Ohio, native’s parents are from eastern Kentucky, and he makes the trips south with his son strictly for basketball games.

"This is our love and passion," Sammons said. "Coming down for games when I was 5, I could not wait to get down here. I remember my dad and my uncle couldn’t speak because they were screaming so loud at the game. I was like, 'God, I want to do that too.'"

Sammons was clutching an array of Kentucky gear at Lexington’s finest sports-themed store, Kennedy’s Wildcat Den. The store owners have second-row season tickets at basketball games.

David Wade was at the front counter. The textbook manager had just come in for his shift when he was asked about the basketball culture in town.

"There’s more pageantry at the basketball games," Wade said. “They spend more money on it. The athletic department spent like $300,000 on Midnight Madness," the opening season practice.

"The football game would be the event everyone was thinking about if you were in South Carolina or Georgia," he said. "That’s a huge difference here."

The football team’s losing culture doesn’t help matters. Wade said that the 67,000-seat Commonwealth Stadium fills up for most games, but a 4-16 record over the past two seasons is a bit of a buzz kill. 

"In basketball, we would not stand for two or three losing seasons in a row," Wade said. "In football, it’s like the (Chicago) Cubs. They’ve lost for so long, it doesn’t matter. Nobody’s upset that we’ve only won two games this year."

"It’ll still be an event tomorrow," he said. "60,000 people will go and tailgate all day and then go to the game."

The atmosphere won’t compare to Adolph Rupp Arena on Friday night, though. A quick glance inside revealed one of the nation’s greatest stages for basketball. Built in 1976, the building has housed four national champions, and the softly lit wood floor shines with history.

Deborah French, a guest services representative, was especially enraptured by "The Eruption Zone," a standing-room-only student section on the floor.

"You can tell who’s a freshman because they come in and sit down," French said. "It’s like, "Oh no, you don’t do that.'"

Friday night is the first official chance for a new crop of freshmen to learn the rules at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats have championship aspirations again, whereas the football team won’t even make it to the postseason this year.

The culmination of a long offseason — "too long," they’ll say — is here.

"Every little kid when they’re 3 years old has a basketball in their hand," French said. "Mom and dad hope they play basketball for UK."

And in the Kentucky family, the pecking order is well known.

"Football is like the little brother," Sammons said. "It doesn’t equate until they win the national title."

Supervising editor is Nina Pantic.

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