John Calipari wants the sizzle back in Big Blue Madness and I believe I have the solution (bear with me on this):
Move it back to Memorial Coliseum.
That’s right – leave the spacious, yawning hall that is Rupp Arena and cram it back into the original home of the event Joe B. Hall introduced to the Big Blue Nation back in 1982.
Kentucky was coming into that season off an upset loss to Middle Tennessee in the NCAA tournament, short-circuiting a potential matchup with the Louisville Cardinals that would have taken place in the next round. (Ironically enough, The 82-83 season ended in The Dream Game, with Kentucky losing a hotly-contested matchup to U of L in Knoxville).
Dubbed the “Midnight Special,” the late-night practice drew only 8,000 fans or so to the Coliseum, which back then held around 11,500. And even though it didn’t become a sell-out for another year or two, it had the effect Hall was looking for. Fans went nuts.
Your humble typist was there at the stroke of midnight when the Wildcats emerged from their locker room, bursting from the tunnel and immediately attacking the basket at the far end of the gym.
Led by Kenny Walker, Melvin Turpin, Charles Hurt and Derrick Hord, the Wildcats began throwing down dunks the likes of which UK fans had never seen. They were so loud, I thought the roof was going to shatter.
It only grew from there as UK’s marketing people partnered with media outlets that sponsored contests, keeping fans entertained while they waited. The cheerleaders and band took advantage of the captive audience as well.
It became an even tougher ticket when MemCol was renovated in 1987, attendance capacity shrinking to 8,700.
Fans began arriving days early to camp out, determined to get through the door and find a seat before the fire marshal shut them out. In 1995 a fan named Wally Clark parked himself at the head of the line a full 17 days before the event. The following year he made it 38 days.
Recruits fell under the spell of Madness. In 1991, Tony Delk, Rodrick Rhodes, Jared Prickett and Walter McCarty all attended. They all committed the following week and five years later celebrated a national championship.
One year saw Rick Pitino, clad head-to-toe in leather, arrive on a Harley Davidson. Tubby Smith made a similar entrance a few years later.
In 2002, legendary equipment manager Bill Keightley popped out of a giant birthday cake. The crowd roared.
All of it happened at venerable Memorial Coliseum but then came the news in 2005: Because of construction on yet another renovation, the facility would not be ready in time for Madness. UK announced the event would be moved to Rupp Arena.
Traditionalists howled but were told it was just a temporary move. Most of us knew better.
It took less than 48 hours for Kentucky fans to scarf up the 23,000 tickets as UK set a new record for number of fans at an open practice. Memorial Coliseum never saw Madness again.
And it was good, for a while. Crowds poured into Rupp; UK’s marketing team worked feverishly all year long to conceive, create and execute a show that HAD to top last year’s.
Player introductions became the focal point with John Wall in 2009 introducing dance moves that became iconic. The following year, pro wrestling aficionado Enes Kanter entered as the UnderTaker. Fans ate it up.
Endless video highlights, high-profile celebrities, pyrotechnics – UK has pulled out as many stops as it has dared, spending at times just shy of a half-million dollars on the event.
But somewhere, Big Blue Madness seems to have lost its spark.
Maybe it’s because the Wildcats haven’t visited the Final Four since 2015; construction at Rupp Arena has put a premium on parking and made it much more palatable for fans to stay home and watch it on live TV.
For whatever reason, it doesn’t seem to have the same allure. And it’s not for lack of trying by the folks who put it together. They begin working on next year’s show almost as soon as the current event ends.
So here’s a vote for the old gal. Memorial Coliseum beckons.
Remember when Kentucky was forced to host a National Invitation Tournament game during the Billy Gillispie regime? The season certainly was a disappointment but watching the Wildcats dispatch UNLV on the same floor where Cliff Hagan, Dan Issel and Mike Pratt played was an absolute treat.
Want to pump a little more excitement into Madness? Make it an incredibly tough ticket. You could still include the fireworks, celebrities and player intros. You’d just be making entry to the big show nearly as valuable as a Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
At least think about it.