Week 0 (Kentucky)
As has been the case the past few years, Week 0 is a trip to Kentucky. Now, one thing about Kentucky is their ‘bowl’ games. Other places around the country may have ‘kickoff classics’ or other events that start the season. Ohio has the Crosstown Showdown and the now-defunct Herbstreit Challenge. Syracuse has their 10-game behemoth at the Carrier Dome. Michigan now offers two kickoff classics. One at Wayne State and the other at Michigan Stadium. And Georgia boasts the venerable and interestingly name-saked Corky Kell Classic.
In Kentucky, though, what makes them different is the sheer number of events. And it all started with one. In 1948, Mount Sterling (now Montgomery County) wanted to fund-raise for their swimming pool and created the “Recreation Bowl”. Today better known just as the “Montgomery County Rec Bowl”. It started as a postseason contest.
When the KHSAA began staging post-season playoffs, the Rec Bowl relocated on the calendar from November to August. Starting as the ‘first game’ of the season. It’s de facto championship game status no longer fitting, but it became a kickoff event for the state. Eventually adding a second game to form a doubleheader (and apparently sometimes a tripleheader).
However, they were not alone. Around the state, other locales saw this and clamored for their own. And they spread. With the advent of “Week 0”, bowl games now make up at least four nights worth of games the first two weeks of the year.
Some bowls are on Friday, some are on Saturday. Some of the bigger ones may host four games over two days. Some only two on one day. And a scant few play only a single game as a ‘bowl’.
The usual format is the host contracts three teams to visit over a two-year window. The two games are chosen, and then the opponents are swapped for the second year. Usually one game treated as the undercard, and the other the title match featuring the home team.
In Week 0, the Death Valley Bowl in Stanford, Kentucky was my choice. This was the third year in a row I attended. And honestly, barring a possible change in overall planning next year, will be back in the future as I think highly of it.
Co-Sponsored by PBK Bank and WBPK-FM, the Death Valley Bowl was in its 20th season. Their games are hosted at Lincoln County High School’s Bill ‘Ed’ Leedy Field in Stanford. The stadium itself isn’t that impressive. Sitting southeast behind the school on the south edge of town off the main highway, US 27, it’s not anything that stands out. Built onto a small slope, you enter the stadium from the top, and the wide expanse of grass behind the press box, which sits at ground level, provides a huge opportunity for students to socialize, for kids to play, for parents and fans to just stand and watch from some of the best vantage points the stadium offers. A long grassy edge to it beyond the independently constructed concession stand is filled with people using the natural face of the earth to rest and watch the game. It also offers those with wheelchairs and lawn chairs a great view of the field below.
In the far corner from the stadium is the lockerroom and restrooms. Atop the hill, it requires a bit of a trek for players between halves. An added benefit of the hillside construction is that the sun sets quickly and what sun there is for the earlier game, is blocked by the pressbox and then by the school building itself.
Unlike other bowls, the Death Valley Bowl features its marquee game first. A 6pm kickoff on a Friday night for the home team seems almost ridiculous. Though the fans turn out quite well.
Now, what brings me back to this is just how important Lincoln County makes these games appear. They go out of their way to make a good impression. The school lot provides plenty of parking for free. Tickets are the usual $10 for the doubleheader you find at almost any other bowl. And not only do they have programs. Nice programs. But they are free. These aren’t ‘school programs’ you see at most games on a Friday night, where every sport and player feature is located with dozens of shoutouts to the players, cheerleaders, and band members. Instead, this is just for the games. The rosters, team photos, schedules, last year’s results, and Death Valley Bowl history.
Also, they give away helmet-shaped fans affixed to oversized tongue depressors. Perfect for the sometimes brutal August heat in south-central Kentucky. Though not needed this season.
And their hospitality doesn’t end there. They almost usually send their opponents home with a win. In the 19 year history of the Death Valley Bowl, Lincoln County had managed only four victories. This year, however, was different. One, they scheduled a team they could beat. And when they got up on them, they did not let down. Plus, this team featured a female kicker who went 6-for-6 on PATs AND was named the Death Valley Bowl Queen. I’m not going to look it up, but there’s near certainty that she’s the first player to earn that honor.
The final of the early game was 42-6.
The nightcap, then, was Somerset against Bourbon County. Unlike in years past at these games, the night game had a decent number of fans for the home side as Somerset was just a short drive south on US27. Prior to the 30-minute break between games, the two teams had gotten ready and partially warmed up, before finding space on the hillside between the field and the fieldhouse.
For fans at the games, and those staying for the night game, the upper open field inside the fence filled with fans of all ages taking the moment to stretch, use the facilities, grab some food, and interact as a swarming mass of people. The one great thing here is the food. Specifically, the Prime Rib Sandwich. Cooked on an open grill across the pathway to the fieldhouse from concession stand; the smell lingers in the air. These sandwiches are good. And there’s nothing to them. A bun and prime rib. And it is amazing.
For the night game, the crowd settled, and most of the Lincoln County fans had matriculated to the exits. The latter game was the better game. A Somerset 9-6 lead at the half gave way to a Bourbon County, 36-29 victory as 50 points were scored in the final 24 minutes. One unusual play happened where the QB had run into the endzone, and the officials stopped the play and declared a safety. Turns out, the official had confused the goal line for the end line, and had thought the player had ran out the back of the endzone. A do-over was needed after that gaff.
After the game, the crowd dispersed, and another Death Valley Bowl came to a close.
The next day, it was a short trip northwest to the town of Danville. Another long-running bowl was taking place on Saturday. This time it was the Bob Allen Pigskin Classic. I had seen this stadium before during one of my various jaunts through the state. And had made it a goal to see a game here.
It looked like one of these imposing concrete stadiums that you rarely find today. The eastern facade along the home side featured large blue and white panels, proclaiming the name and their championships. A large, painted blue anchor sat as a marker in the open expanse beneath the stadium’s shadow.
In the past, the Bob Allen Pigskin Classic (named after a local car dealer) was played in Week 1. It matched perfectly with the Rebel Bowl, also played on Week 1, just across town at Boyle County High School. The two shared the Week 1 weekend with one on Friday and one on Saturday. This year saw a shift into Week 0 on Saturday. And an opportunity for a new place to see a game for me.
Now, things with this bowl were lacking compared to previous bowls in other places. There were no programs. There wasn’t the presence of a group running these games as Lincoln County so dutifully executed.
Instead, there was very little. The lack of parking was only offset by the wide expanses of sloping, rolling, hillsides to park your car in the grass. Tickets were the prerequisite $10 as with other bowls. However, actually entering the stadium felt more like a prison than a high school game.
The large imposing facade sits above the bathrooms. Accessible only from behind the stadium. Situated near the 50-yard-line. It requires you to walk to one end of the field, and back. One lone concession stand for the entire complex sat at the north end of the home stands. The stadium itself provided excellent sightlines. Elevated well above the field. However, like many Kentucky stadiums I’ve run across, the noticeable western-facing home fans belie the fact this old stadium once lacked lights. As with almost all future stadiums built with night games in mind, the setting sun almost universally sets behind the home fans. Instead, here, the tiny visitor stand sat both in the shade of some trees and lacking the direct beating of the afternoon sun.
The admission of umbrellas helped. And with the first game kicking off at 6pm, the undercard of Woodford County and Wayne County, was sparsely attended and the expansive stadium swallowing up the meager crowd. One interesting factoid about this stadium, is that the locker room, if you could call it that, is visible from the field. After descending from the seating area between the fence and the stands, the elevated stands rest atop the area the players congregate below. Their only partition is a chain link fence. For visitors, this must be an imposing factor in playing here. The caged animal-like enclosure.
The early game, itself, was a blow out. Wayne County won easily, 45-7.
The night game’s crowd, this time featuring the homestanding Danville Admirals, lacked the crowd expected for such an enormous venue. It was a loud and boisterous crowd, however. And their opponents, though, were new. Frederick Douglass High School in Lexington had just opened. And the Broncos were playing their first ever football game. Unfortunately, despite the idea this time would be good (and they’ve since improved), they were not good tonight. Their timing was off. Blocking was poor and late. And Danville started a running clock in the second half.
The final was 36-0. And I did learn one thing new. Unlike Pennsylvania, whose 35-point mercy rule starts at 35 points, in Kentucky it must be MORE THAN 35 points. So, on their fifth touchdown, the Admirals went for two to start the clock.
After the game, it was back to the hotel before the long trip home.
All in all, Kentucky is a fun state to see a game. Some iconic and notable stadiums dot the landscape. Though the quality of play may be a bit lacking compared to Ohio, their fan support and passion isn’t.
And their bowl game structure is a unique way of starting their football seasons.