LEXINGTON — Student-athletes are coached on how to deal with the media at probably 90 percent of Division I universities playing higher profile sports, most notably football and basketball.
Some schools literally hire consultants to do this task, while in most cases, the schools’ media relations departments take care of it.
When I did a feature on Frankfort’s E.J. Fields some four years ago, when Fields was redshirting with the football Wildcats because of an injury and, therefore, not even playing in games, UK nevertheless had a media representative sit with us during the entire 30-45 minute interview.
The No. 1 rule for such athletes is this: Don’t say anything to provide bulletin board material for your opponent.
That brings me to UK senior running back Raymond Sanders.
Sanders appears to have a chip on his shoulder when it comes to Saturday’s opening-game opponent, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (7:15 p.m. Eastern Time at Nashville’s LP Field).
Two years ago, Sanders and a number of his teammates listened to a handful of Hilltoppers question the merits of UK playing football in the Southeastern Conference after Kentucky edged WKU, 14-3, in one of the worst college football games in Division I history.
Last season, Western Kentucky raised the ire of Sanders and a good number of the Wildcats by celebrating so profusely after the Hilltoppers stunned UK, 32-31, in overtime at Commonwealth Stadium.
(I don’t personally have any problem with WKU’s joy in that situation, with that thrilling finish. But, I digress.)
So Monday, at a press luncheon to talk about the first game of the coach Mark Stoops era Saturday against Western, some media members asked Sanders about the revenge factor.
Sanders appeared to try with all his might not to take the bait. But he just couldn’t help himself. Though it started innocently enough.
Asked if the Wildcats should have a chip on their shoulder about Western, Sanders replied in a fashion that would make any consultant proud.
“We should have a chip on our shoulder for the season we had last year,” Sanders said of Kentucky’s 2-10 record a year ago that got Coach Joker Phillips fired. “That’s the big thing.
“We think about it, but we’ve got to worry about ourselves right now. We have to prepare, and then when Saturday comes, there’s going to be a lot of emotions from all kinds of things.”
That led to this follow-up question: Did the Hilltoppers celebrate too much last year?
Sanders knew he was falling into a trap, but he didn’t know how to get out of it.
First, he laughed nervously. Then he added, “Yeah, I mean, yeah, I mean (more nervous laughter) I really don’t want to go into that too much, because that could be ugly.
“I mean, there’s a lot of things you take into your mind for motivation. That’s why we’re preparing this week. Saturday, all of those things we’re remembering, not even just from them, but from the whole season, a lot of emotion is going to come out.”
Sanders was again asked did the Hilltoppers stay on the Commonwealth Stadium field too long, celebrating?
“You can’t go into anybody’s house and do what you want,” Sanders said. “So that’s something we aren’t going to take lightly. But, like I said, we have to prepare. We have to be right.”
Sanders was then asked about some WKU allegations two years ago that Kentucky football isn’t deserving of the SEC.
“I’ve been here four years,” Sanders said. “We remember it all. That’s something I’m going to reiterate to my teammates. But, right now, I just need to get my guys to go out there and focus on their job and doing the right thing.
“We’re going to have a nice pre-game speech that will hopefully fire the guys up and get them ready to play.”
UK senior linebacker Avery Williamson and junior defensive end Alvin “Bud” Dupree did not take the bait to the degree that Sanders did.
Asked if he wants revenge on the Hilltoppers, Williamson replied: “A little bit. But I’m not focusing on that. I’m focusing on the game plan. We’re trying not to focus on last year at all.”
“I don’t remember a lot of it,” Dupree added. “The motivation is knowing they won on our field, but we have to look beyond that. We’ll remember it a little bit in the back of our heads, but there’s a lot more at stake now.”
Stoops doesn’t seem bothered about all this talk about shoulders, chips and revenge.
A reporter asked the UK coach if he wants his Wildcats using last year’s loss to WKU as motivation.
“If they need to, sure,” Stoops said. “I told them that. It bothered me that they ... that we lost that game a year ago. It should bother them.”
Stoops said he does not mind if his Wildcats play with attitude.
“I do want them playing with more of an attitude, as long as it’s not false or fake,” he said. “I want them to give the maximum they can. We’ve just got to do what we can do, and do it to the best of our ability.
“That’s what I want to see out of them.”
The depth chart
Franklin County’s Ryan Timmons, a freshman wide receiver for Kentucky, remains listed as co-first team, with sophomore wide out Daryl Collins, on the depth chart released Monday.
When asked Monday which of the freshmen stand out for his team, Stoops said: “Ryan Timmons is a guy that we are all excited about. He’ll be out there. He’ll play quite a bit ...”