ARLINGTON — Thanks to cable television, Keller resident Mary Jane Dailey rarely misses a University of Kentucky basketball game. She is known to get somewhat demonstrative, so much so that her bird dog, Bogy, has learned to recognize the UK fight song before the opening tip.“She does so much screaming and yelling, the dog hears the song and goes and hides under the bed,” said her husband, Bob Wyatt.Mary Jane is unapologetic, raised as she was on a farm near Lexington. Kentucky basketball is a birthright, as it is for millions of others from the Bluegrass State, where college basketball, Wildcat basketball, is king.On Friday at AT&T Stadium, on practice day for the Final Four, Dailey and others from that legendary fandom descended.Joe Coffey, his wife, Barbara, and friend Tammy Pickett were among those proudly decked out in Kentucky blue, seemingly unfazed by their 15-hour drive west through bad weather the night before.Earlier this season, the residents of tiny Jamestown, Ky., followed the team to Hawaii, to New York City and to Atlanta for the Southeastern Conference Tournament. At each stop they found communities of Wildcat believers.The ubiquitous nature of the Kentucky basketball faithful is another thing that inspires comparison to the permanent tenants at the Arlington stadium.“We’ve been compared to Cowboys fans a lot,” Joe Coffey said Friday, a few feet from the court where Kentucky players casually fired up jumpers during their brief workout. “And New York Yankees fans.”Given Kentucky’s pedigree, Coffey knows that most of the multitudes in Arlington this weekend will be rooting against the Wildcats — except those wearing blue, of course.“It will be three against one,” he said, laughing. “But this year we were an eighth seed. We’re a Cinderella team.”‘They’re bigger in person’Coffey and his family have good seats for Saturday’s semifinals and Monday’s national championship game. But for many UK fans, and basketball fans generally, Friday was a chance to experience a taste of the Final Four without having to pay a hefty price for a game ticket.According to a tweet from the NCAA Final Four, 15,401 fans took advantage of the opportunity. For all of her allegiance, Keller’s Dailey has never seen a Wildcat game in person. When Kentucky took the court Friday, she got as close as she could to the court before a security guard sent her away.“Oh, yeah, I had goose bumps,” she said.Below her in the stands, a few dozen young people were dressed in red, not the colors of Wisconsin, another Final Four school, but Dallas Skyline High School. With the principal’s blessing, the boys and girls basketball teams, the soccer team, and members of the Student Senate piled onto a bus and headed for Jerry World.“It’s just so exciting to be here and watch the workouts of players that they’ve been watching on TV,” Skyline girls coach Cassandra McCurdy said.“The excitement is in the air for the Final Four. You can’t miss this if you have the opportunity.”One of her players, senior Charisma Matlock, had never seen a pro or college player in person before.“We just watch them on TV,” she said from her seat near the court. “They are way bigger in person.”As was something else.“The screen is huge,” she said.Kentucky’s traditionMatlock and her teammates said they did not have a rooting favorite this weekend. That put them in the minority at the stadium Friday.Jacksonville attorney Rick Staggard and his 11-year-old son were wearing the orange and blue of Florida, a Final Four favorite. Staggard said he was an early convert to the team and the ways of Florida coach Billy Donovan, who won back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007.“Billy Donovan to me is what college sports should be about,” Staggard said. “And unlike Kentucky, he doesn’t have to load himself up with one-and-done players [players who leave school early for the pros].”But Staggard concedes that Florida is still a football school.“Kentucky has more of a tradition,” he said. “Kentucky has won more national championships.”Only UCLA has won more. In all, Kentucky has won more college basketball games than any other school, dominance that dates to the 41-year tenure of coach Adolph Rupp. It doesn’t hurt that the state has no pro sports teams to take attention away and that UK’s college football team is traditionally woeful.“I remember hearing the basketball games on the radio when I was 7 or 8,” Joe Coffey said. “You get it early and it stays with your forever. You can’t get it off of you.”Twenty-seven years ago, when his wife was in the final stages of labor with her son, Joe, Kentucky was playing Oklahoma in basketball. The delivery staff and her husband had one eye on the game. Barbara Coffey might have been the only person focused on the matter at hand.“I said, ‘When are you going to take this baby?’ They said, ‘When the game was over.’ ”Kentucky won that day. The baby is about to graduate from UK graduate school, another die-hard in a long tradition of them, a wave of blue now having descended on Arlington.
Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544 Twitter: @tsmadigan