HOOVER, Ala. — Harold Graeter is the associate executive director of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis, a game Kentucky played in and won three years ago.
He’s excited the Liberty Bowl will have its more traditional New Year’s Eve date at 3:30 p.m. EST — the same day UK’s basketball team hosts Louisville.
ESPN so many years, but they have slid us over to ABC this year and we will be one of only four bowl games that will be on network television versus cable. We will have a few more million viewers watching, and that’s big for us,” Graeter, who worked in Memphis TV before joining the Liberty Bowl 13 years ago, said.
Question: How has the perception of Kentucky football changed over the last 10 to 20 years in your opinion?
Graeter: “Having been a TV guy in the Memphis market for 15 years, my view was really looking at how Kentucky would play against the University of Tennessee and we all know how that has been for Kentucky. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, since I¿have been out of the media, their numbers against Tennessee have not changed. From the mid 1980’s to the 1990’s, it was Kentucky was a basketball school and football was just something to do. Certainly with the arrival of Rich Brooks that changed and Joker Phillips is working hard to change that. It’s no longer just a basketball school. It is a basketball and football school. The perception not only in my part of the world but nationally about Kentucky has changed and you have to give a big part of that credit to Rich Brooks and Joker was part of that process and is obviously working his tail off to continue that.”
Question: How does your bowl stay so gracious when no team at this time of year has a goal of going to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl?
Graeter: “First, we know this time of year that teams in the SEC are looking to win their division and the conference championship. We understand that. We also know midway through the year, reality will set in and teams that if they really did some soul searching, know they will be 6-6 or 7-5 at best and expectations come back to reality. It starts to sink in that we want a winning season and a bowl game is still a reward for hard work and that’s how we look at it as a reward for the teams in our game.
“We know that we don’t have the Florida beaches or California weather, but Memphis is a great travel destination and we have history and legacy in our game and that resonates with the coaches, especially young head coaches. They know great coaches and great players were there. We have had four Heisman Trophy winners play in our game. There’s plenty to do to entertain players and it’s a great spot for fans, too. We work a little harder to make our game a success for everyone and for us that hard work starts at Media Days to renew friendships whether it is with coaches or media members. We are at a game or two every weekend. We have to do that to send a message early and often that we want your team, fans and alums at Memphis if the opportunity is there.”
Question: What do folks in Memphis think of John Calipari since he left Memphis to become head coach at Kentucky two years ago?
Graeter: “I think you probably have different contingencies in Memphis. Some that will never get over it and the way John left and taking the recruits (John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins) with him. Then you have a group that didn’t like it when it happened, but that’s the past and John is in Lexington and we have Josh Pastner as coach and he has established himself and has the Tigers back in prominence. Then you have a group of folks that were friends of John’s and are friends of John’s that would never ever say anything negative about him.
“I am a University of Memphis grad and I will say it from that perspective of looking back at where the Tiger program was when¿John took it over he was exactly what the program and city needed. He got the Tigers back into prominence and were within two or three minutes of winning the national championship (against Kansas). John did for the Tiger program what the Tigers needed. I think Memphis was good for John as well and gave him a springboard to have his dream job at Kentucky. At the end of the day, it was a win-win for John and his family and his career and it was a win for Memphis.
“John got them back into prominence and had a chance to win a national championship. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Question: Does that mean you are not surprised by the success he’s had at Kentucky?
Graeter: “No surprise that John has had this success. If you can do what he did at Memphis, you can do it at a program like Kentucky, where you have every tool you need at your disposal, from facilities to planes to recruit. You name it, he has it. He is the best recruiter in the country. He is the best salesman there is. I am not surprised one bit at the success he’s had.
“I wish him the best. John was great for the Tigers and the city of Memphis. I¿know he and his wife, Ellen, still maintain relationships with folks in Memphis and do charitable work and has very close friends in Memphis and that’s the way it should be. John is a great person. You may not always agree with what he does or how he does it, but I¿look past that at the person. John had a great impact at Memphis and a great impact on some players that if he had given up on them, there’s no telling where those kids would be. But he gave them second and third chances and give John credit for being a mentor and teacher and giving those young men the opportunity they needed. I think the world of him and wish him the best and think most Tiger fans do.”