By LARRY VAUGHT
Getting to play No. 21 Northwestern in the Music City Bowl will give Kentucky a “great opportunity” to reestablish what the football program should be about.
Or at least that is what UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart is hoping after the way the Cats ended the season with back to back losses to Georgia and Louisville. Kentucky also had several incidents of player misconduct in the Louisville game.
“What we saw last Saturday (against Louisville) is not who we are,” Barnhart said Sunday. “Never has been. And it’s not who we will be and that is for sure. I will assure you that their focus will be on reestablishing the way that they play on the field and the way that they’ve represented this program on and off the field.
“I’m very proud of the young men in this program and they are as well. When you lose a couple games and the way we lost, it stings a little bit and I assure they will bounce back with an incredible effort. Gives us a chance to respond as a team. Having that bowl game gives you a chance to practice. Gives you a chance to respond as a team.”
Barnhart also made a plea for UK fans to respond and support the team in Nashville even though the basketball team is playing Louisville at 1 p.m. the same day in Rupp Arena.
“There’s a lot of folks that support our program. I think there’s plenty of fans to go around and I hope that the fans will be in Rupp Arena cheering our basketball program that day and I hope there will be another 25-30,000 fans down in Nashville cheering our football program on down in Nashville,” Barnhart said.
“And if they can find that helicopter or that jet to get down the highway right to the game, perfect. That’s awesome. If they can’t, we just hope that they’ll be cheering from the Cats from wherever they happen to be that day. It gives our fans in Western Kentucky an unbelievable opportunity go right down the road and see our friends in Nashville and have an opportunity to watch our football program.”
Barnhart said the players need the fan support to uplift the program.
“I’m going to challenge our team and I’m going to challenge our fans to respond to one another and let’s show country exactly who we are, both competitively and as a fan base, and so I’m looking forward to that,” Barnhart said.
Kentucky has guaranteed the Music City Bowl that it will sell 8,000 tickets. Barnhart doesn’t think that will be a problem even with the way UK finished the season.
“I’m hoping that we’ll have 15, 20,000 fans down there for that. We really need their support and so I’m asking them to do that and sort of lift us up and be there with our team,” Barnhart said.
Barnhart admitted he received correspondence from fans complaining about the team’s behavior against Louisville. He shared those concerns with the team.
“I know these guys well. I’m around them a lot and I trust them. I think they’re good people and they’ve got good hearts. But it wasn’t who we are (against Louisville). That’s not we’ve been and so that was a little disappointing to us. I think when the game doesn’t go your way and you get a little frustrated in something that’s so important to you, sometimes you can lose your composure and we lost ours,” Barnhart said.
“I will defend those guys every day, because I know that they’re going to be great young men, they’re going to represent themselves well in life and that’s part of our jobs, to sit here and help them learn how to grow as young people. With that comes growing pains, as it does for all of our children that we have in our families. I will fight for them and I’ll work with them, but that doesn’t give them a pass,” Barnhart said.
“The challenge to them is become the guys and reestablish our character and our good name that we know that we have. Our name hasn’t been tarnished. These guys are 7-5 and they went 4-4 in the league. We had one game we did not represent, from that perspective, how we wanted to be.
“I don’t want that to define them and I don’t want it to define us. I don’t think that’s fair. But I will say this: That has been addressed and I want to shut that door and move on and let’s go find a way to reestablish who we are.”