The numbers kept growing as the weeks passed, hurtling past the expected, through the believable and eventually settling beyond even the deepest reaches of the imagination. It got to the point not even the players in Kentucky's football program could comprehend what they were hearing.
An estimated 50,831 fans showed up for Kentucky's Blue/White spring game Saturday night (Matt May/TCP)
By the time the Cats took the field for the annual Blue/White spring game nearly 51,000 fans had found their way to Commonwealth Stadium to support a team that finished 2-10 without a single Southeastern Conference victory in 2012. Even a week or two ago it seemed like a pipe dream.
“I told Bud (Dupree) one day, 'Man, what if nobody shows up?' linebacker Avery Williamson said. “It was crazy. When tickets first went on sale and they were selling like crazy I was like, 'Wow, people are really going to come to this game? I was shocked.”
Dupree laughed when reminded of the conversation, acknowledging the players had kept close tabs on the reports that kept coming out over the weeks leading up to the Blue/White Game. They all remembered a virtually empty Commonwealth Stadium the final two home games of 2012, two dates that saw a combined 39,815 actually pass through the venue's gates.
“Avery did say that at practice,” Dupree said. “He was like, 'What if they're lying to us? What if nobody shows up? We got here and looked in the stands and we were like, 'Man, they ain't lying.' We're just blessed to have fans coming back into the program because it gives us energy.”
The scene was a stunning testament to the enthusiasm that has permeated the Kentucky program and fan base since Mark Stoops was hired to elevate a traditional SEC bottom feeder to league relevancy. A game that drew an estimated 4,500 fans last April saw an estimated 50,831 on a glorious April night. Informed of the figure, the players appeared taken aback.
“How many was it?” Williamson asked with a hint of shock. “Really? I knew it was a lot of people. (the fans have) got a good feeling about this coaching staff and what they've brought to the table. They've brought a lot of structure to this team. Bringing in good recruits. (Fans) feel like we're on the uprise.”
Stoops, who came to Kentucky from college football powerhouse Florida State, even seemed like he was in wait and see mode leading up to the game. When he witnessed a long line of supporters greet the team during their 'Cat Walk' across Cooper Drive and up to the stadium he was a believer.
“I was amazed,” Stoops said. “You heard the numbers the past couple of weeks but you never know who's going to show up. It was overwhelming (support). It was fantastic. Our players really felt that, the energy of the Cat Walk and the stadium, (fans) were really into the game.
“It's remarkable, it really is. I really thank them for their support and their belief in and passion for this program. It's tremendous. It does nothing but help us and makes us want to do better. We feel that passion and energy and we want to deliver. We want to get this done and deliver because this state deserves to have a great program.”
To put the attendance into perspective, the estimated crowd was 7,657 more people than the largest regular season crowd of the 2012 season, which was 43,174 in the home opener against Western Kentucky. The Blue/White Game attendance was the highest of the seven league teams to play their spring game thus far and obliterated the previous UK record of 20,325 set in 1987.
“I had butterflies today knowing there was going to be this many people here for the spring game,” quarterback Jalen Whitlow said. “That's big. That's big to the University of Kentucky. That's big to the state of Kentucky. Fifty-one thousand people? Come on. That's a lot of people for basically a practice game. That's big.”
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown, who grew up in nearby Danville and spent part of his playing career with the Cats, was floored at the turnout.
“What a tremendous amount of pride I have in my home state and the fans,” Brown said. “We did the 'Cat Walk' and it was tremendous. It was tremendous. Great amount of fan support. Our kids had a great energy. We had a lot of recruits in town, and it sends a message because kids talk, recruits talk to other recruits. What they're going to be talking about when they leave here is the fan support. Not necessarily so much what happened on the field, but they're going to be talking about fan support. That was huge.”
In short, few people thought this was possibly not long ago but suddenly Kentucky football has more than just a pulse again, it has buzz.
“I thought it was a great night for the program,” Stoops said. “Really appreciate the fan support. Just an unbelievable atmosphere.”