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In 2022, UK has at long last started to act like SEC school

For some six decades, the general reaction to a University of Kentucky football season that yielded a winning record of any kind fell somewhere between contentment and excitement.

Conversely, the just-concluded 7-5 campaign turned in by Mark Stoops’ 2022 Wildcats has been, by all but universal acclaim, deemed a resounding disappointment.

So far, not one, but two UK football assistants have paid for the season’s perceived under-performance with their jobs.

The history books list the University of Kentucky as one of the Southeastern Conference’s founding members in 1933. But, in reality, we may look back on 2022 as the year when UK ceased being an anomaly in its own league and fully “joined” the SEC.

At an authentic SEC school, failure to meet football expectations carries consequences.

This year at Kentucky, an offense that ranks 106th out of 131 FBS schools in yards per game (336.3) and 105th in points per game (22.1) cost first-year offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello his job.

Meanwhile, a 2023 UK recruiting class that sits 50th in the 24/7 Composite Rankings — only one position ahead of Vanderbilt for last among SEC schools — is thought to have played a role in the dismissal of veteran running backs coach John Settle with the intent of hiring an energetic recruiter.

“I’m a big boy. I can handle people wanting more,” UK’s Stoops said after Kentucky beat rival Louisville 26-13 in the final game of the regular season. “I want more, too.”

University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto, right, congratulated Wildcats football coach Mark Stoops, left, after a victory at Kroger Field. Alex Slitz

Long perceived as a basketball-first outlier in a football-mad conference, the end of the season is not the only part of this year in which UK has looked and acted like a genuine SEC school.

For the second straight season, the crowds at Kroger Field for UK football have been far-more energetic than your typical basketball gatherings at Rupp Arena.

The UK student section this season for football has been off-the-charts good, consistently the best student support for Kentucky football I can ever recall.

Meanwhile, earlier this week, UK sent out a news release that “single-game tickets for the final 11 Kentucky men’s basketball home games, including all Southeastern Conference games and matchups with Louisville and Kansas, will go on sale Wednesday, Nov. 30, at 5 p.m.”

Part of the explanations for the variations in enthusiasm among the ticket-buying public between UK football and basketball is that the programs have, in recent years, deviated from their historical performance norms.

Over its last 50 games vs. Power Five conference opponents, Kentucky football is 28-22.

Going into Sunday’s game with Michigan in London, England, Kentucky men’s basketball is 26-24 over its last 50 games vs. Power Five conference foes.

At the administrative level, Kentucky President Eli Capilouto and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart signed off on a new contract for Stoops — UK’s all-time winningest football coach at 66-58 and the head man who has produced two of the four 10-win football seasons in all of Wildcats’ pigskin history — that will pay him $9 million a year starting in 2023.

That will make Stoops the highest-paid coach on the Kentucky campus, though men’s basketball coach John Calipari’s salary is also scheduled to move from $8.5 million to $9 million a year in July 2025.

Back in the summer, when Calipari went public with his displeasure in what was essentially a dispute over funding for athletics facilities upgrades between basketball and other UK athletics programs including football, the university administration sided with football over basketball.

For good or bad, that is what an SEC school acts like.

The Kentucky men’s basketball program will always be the most tradition-rich on the UK campus. It has long represented a standard of excellence that has served as a unique point of pride for Kentuckians from Ashland to Paducah, Covington to Somerset. That is a bond that will long endure.

Nevertheless, a couple of factors explain why UK has begun to act in a manner more consistent with the other Southeastern Conference schools.

In the landscape of big-time college sports as it exists in 2022, it is football that drives conference alignments and determines how your athletics department is perceived. Even at Kentucky, it is football that produces the most revenue.

Having a football program that is, at the minimum, relevant and competitive is the single-biggest key to Kentucky’s athletics future.

So as the calendar turns to December and UK men’s basketball has important games on the horizon, the story animating much of the attention of the Big Blue Nation is the search for Kentucky football’s next offensive coordinator — and whether Liam Coen, the ex-Cats OC, can be wooed back and away from the Los Angeles Rams.

Suffice to say, that is business as usual for an authentic Southeastern Conference school — which, in 2022, Kentucky seems at long last to have become.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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