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By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky’s abysmal football season doesn’t figure to get any better Saturday when Georgia, a 27-point favorite, comes to what likely will not be a hostile Commonwealth Stadium based on the low attendance even before UK was embarrassed 49-7 in last week’s weather-shortened game at Arkansas.
But don’t blame a lack of recruiting funds for the slide. Or at least that is what Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said.
Speculation about the UK football recruiting budget surfaced last week when there was a report that the $300,000 Kentucky spent on Big Blue Madness was close to the entire football recruiting budget. That’s why I asked Phillips on the Southeastern Conference teleconference how UK’s football recruiting budget was set and if it had enough money for him to do what was necessary to be competitive with other SEC teams.
“Each year what they go on (to set the budget) is what we have spent the past year,” Phillips said. “We have never even looked at it. We have never asked for something and not been able to get it.”
“We really have an unlimited budget in recruiting. We spent over $500,000 on airlines and official visits last year. That’s a lot of money. That is plenty for us,” Phillips said.
If that’s “plenty” for Kentucky, then why do other schools — Alabama, LSU, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia — spend more and land more four- and five-star players? Wouldn’t spending more money likely elevate UK’s recruiting and help the Cats bring even better players to campus? Or would it?
“The thing we don’t do … it is hard for us to go out and national recruit. You see teams spend more money than us in national recruiting flying back and forth across the country to places like California. We do go out there for junior college recruits, but going out there for high school recruiting defeats the purpose at Kentucky,” Phillips said.
Maybe Phillips is right. It’s hard enough for UK to recruit a four- or five-star player in the South. For that matter, the Cats have not been having great success even signing most highly-rated in-state players. This year alone out of the top 10 ranked in-state players, only one — Clay County lineman Jacob Hyde — has committed to Kentucky and the Cats are not the leader for any of the others.
But former UK center Dave Hopewell, who started on the 1977 team that went 10-1, isn’t buying all Phillips said. Hopewell was from Alabama. Two of his best teammates, Derek Ramsey and Art Still, were from New Jersey. He had teammates from numerous states because then coach Fran Curci was not afraid to recruit anywhere.
“I just think Joker is being politically correct,” Hopewell said. “I don’t believe all that. If that’s the case about an unlimited budget, they should be flying everywhere to recruit. Go wine and dine players to play here. Be like (UK basketball coach John) Calipari and get in a private plan and go see the nation’s best players and sell them on coming to play in the SEC, which is just a miniature NFL.”
Of course, UK is at the bottom of the SEC. The Cats have been so bad offensively that they have not had an offensive touchdown in the first quarter in the last 20 games. Phillips is 12-20 as a head coach and many fans have lost interest in the program.
“These guys are good coaches,” Hopewell said. “But something is just not clicking. I can’t put my finger on it, but something is just not right.”
Agreed. That also means the players could be sensing that same hopeless. Phillips says not, but we’ll see Saturday night againstGeorgia.
“We traveled to Arkansas with 68 players and 42 were freshmen and sophomores,” Phillips said. “They do not have any hopeless feelings. They are all excited to go out and play. They don’t think about (feeling hopeless) because they are getting an opportunity to play. I don’t think they sense that hopelessness.”