Two score and change ago, a college team from Cincinnati with players no one had heard of dominated college basketball for three years in a row, from 1961 through 1963. Oscar Robertson had graduated by then and had moved on to the NBA, but nonetheless, in ’61 and ’62, the Bearcats took the championship game from mighty Ohio State University, whose roster included future NBA stars Bob Siegfried, Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek.
In ‘63, the UC Bearcats lost their bid for a third straight national title when, in the final game, Loyola University overcame a 15-point deficit to win in overtime. UC fans of a certain age still talk about those years and remember how closely they followed their no-name team in triumph and in loss.
If anything, I would say UK Wildcat fans are even more loyal to Big Blue and the university certainly has a storied winning tradition that any school would be proud of. Grateful alumni write big checks and the basketball ticket sales, income from TV broadcasts and merchandise sales help support other sports programs on campus. UK’s winning record also guarantees that any team hosting a visiting UK squad will fill its stands.
Evidence of UK fan loyalty is not hard to spot here locally, as many of us own and proudly wear or display Wildcat sweatshirts, UK logo hats, license plates, mugs, jerseys and so on. On chilly nights, I put on a pair of UK logo “lounging britches” before turning in. People from tykes to grandparents adorn themselves in Wildcat Blue at the mall, the theater, the auto parts store and the grocery store. Fans all over pass their loyalty along to their kids and grandkids.
Recently, I have begun to notice a trend that could threaten the loyalty of the UK fan base. Just how serious this threat may be has yet to be determined, and no easy solutions to the problem present themselves. I am talking about the tendency of many UK players to spend only one year at the university, after which they make themselves eligible for the NBA draft.
Within the last couple of years, virtually all the starting players remained with the team for only one year. Just when Coach Cal gets the players to gel as a unit, they are dispersed among various NBA squads.
The trend has to do, it seems, with the pressure coaches at top schools like UK are under to recruit the best players. Winning records are a must both for coaches to survive and for the alumni to continue their support. Top teams get additional time and revenue from TV broadcasts and merchandising, and loyal fans fill the stands each game, insuring high concession sales. Truly outstanding coaches must, perforce, be world-class recruiters to keep filling their ranks with the best players.
For the players, the story appears to be changing as well. In the past, little boys often imagined themselves growing up to play for their favorite college teams, to enjoy the accolades and their share of the glory, and to graduate after four years. They came to play for the school they chose and to be part of college life and the traditions at that school. Some, the standouts, might then go on to the pros as Oscar Robertson and Jack Twyman did at UC and as many, many former Wildcat players have done.
I strongly suspect that many of today’s youngsters have a slightly different version of the dream.
The NBA is a much bigger factor today than it was, say, in the 1960s, and more schools are seeing players who, drawn by the lure of million dollar contracts, leave their schools after only one season. To my mind, some of today’s top players do not see college as anything more than a stepping stone to the NBA and they don’t come to their chosen school with the idea of remaining there to get a degree. College is but a way station on their road to stardom and huge paychecks. The school’s storied record, the fans, the school spirit, all mean little to these top-tier players. Their only purpose is to play out their year until they turn 19 and are eligible for the NBA draft.
Pity the poor UK fan, then, who sees his or her team disappear entirely year after year as the NBA takes all its best players. How will Big Blue maintain its loyal fan base and its winning ways if it loses most or all of its players year after year? Will fans become more cynical and less enthusiastic as money, or its promise, replaces school spirit in the minds of future Wildcat players? Is it really in the best interest of the players to go on to play pro ball at age nineteen, or is it better to finish growing and developing in a university setting and to end up with a college degree and some maturity before moving to the pros?
I wish there were an easy answer to any of these questions, dear readers, but alas, I find myself at a loss. Perhaps, in the fullness of time, the will of the fans will determine whether or not this trend continues. Experience tells me that we are unlikely to return to simpler time when money mattered less than the loyalty of one’s fans and the fighting spirit of one’s school. But I have been wrong before, and the fickle finger of fate may yet surprise us all.