I am an unabashed fan of University of Kentucky football. I’m not the only one, either. There are a bunch of us. I have been a fan for 40 years. The Cats’ record during that span? 193 wins, 250 losses, 5 ties. Our most successful coach, Fran Curci, won a whopping 48% of his games.
I date my fandom to the beginning of the Fran Curci Era in 1973. Prior that, all I knew was that John Ray was a terrible coach (according to my Dad). Dad talked a lot about the Cats winning the Sugar Bowl in 1950. Kentucky fans still talk about that. It’s our high water mark.
Curci got us to 10-1 in 1977. We beat Penn State and finished 6th in the polls (somehow Penn State was 5th). Oh, we didn’t play in a bowl game. Probation. Such are the fortunes of UK football.
It’s 2012, and we’ve never gotten back to those halcyon days. We won 9 games one year and 8 several times. We’ve been to a few bowl games but never really challenged on the national stage. In fact, we’ve never really challenged in our own conference, the formidable SEC.
Historically, UK fans have been optimistic to the point of delusion. I have a friend who looks at the schedule every year and sees 9 wins. I haven’t talked to him about this season, but he’ll probably give me this assessment:
- Louisville: Of course, we’ll beat them.
- Samford, Kent State, Western Kentucky: Win, win, win. 4-0.
- Florida: They’re down and we’re due, having lost 26 in a row. 5-0.
- Vanderbilt: We always beat them (This isn’t true, but UK fans believe it).
- Tennessee: They’re down, too. Plus, we broke our long losing streak against them last year. We own them now. That’s 7 wins.
- Mississippi State: Should have beat them last year. We’ve got them. 8 wins.
- Georgia: We always play them tough (not true, either). Probably a loss, but it will be close.
- Missouri: Don’t know much about them, but we have a shot.
- South Carolina: This one is probably a loss.
- Arkansas: they’ll be in chaos. We have a shot.
- There you go. At least 9 wins.
This season is different. The old blind optimism is gone. Gloom and doom prevail. I haven’t gotten my friend’s predictions, yet, but he probably only sees 6 wins. Most fans see 3 wins, 4 if we’re lucky. Last year, we went 5-7–a fairly typical record for UK football. In the past, such a record would be considered a launching pad for greatness. Not now. Why?
I guess I should tell you that I’ve never been one of the optimists. Generally, I’ve seen every season as holding the potential for 6 or so wins if things go well and 2 or 3 if we don’t get some breaks. I feel better about this season for some reason. My friend and fellow blogger, Meisterblogger, posted an excellent piece on this optimism. I agree with each of his points. If he and I are optimistic, things must be getting better.
Big Blue Nation disagrees. Season ticket sales are down–way down. The call-in shows (as our former coach Bill Curry once said, “The Fellowship of the Miserable”) are consistently predicting 3 or 4 wins. A coach change looms. With the addition of Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC, years of cellar-dwelling are a virtual certainty. Our fan base has had a go to pieces.
Much like addicts, UK fans have hit bottom. The reality of their situation is inescapable. They have given up hope. Why?
THE COACHING CONUNDRUM
For the uninitiated, our coach is Joe “Joker” Phillips. Joker is a Kentucky native. He played at UK. He was an assistant coach at UK for many years. He’s charming. He’s the prototype of what we should want. In two seasons at UK, his record is 11 and 14, making him one of the most successful UK head men in recent memory. Nevertheless, after two seasons, he’s almost universally disliked. The most common description of Joker starts like this: “Joker is a nice guy and I really hope he does well, but…..” Then comes a scathing critique.
Miami University in Ohio trumpets itself as the Cradle of Coaches because of its history of producing football coaches. UK, on the other hand, can legitimately lay claim to being the Graveyard of Coaches. Here is what happened with our coaches in the last 40 years:
- Fran Curci: Never coached again.
- Jerry Claiborne: Ditto.
- Bill Curry: Didn’t coach again for many years until a brief return to start the program at Georgia State.
- Hal Mumme: He’s had a couple of head jobs but seems destined to slide back to obscurity.
- Guy Morriss: He left UK for Baylor where he lasted 4 seasons.
- Rich Brooks: Retired.
The last UK coaches to go on to great success were Bear Bryant and Blanton Collier, both of whom left UK over 50 years ago. The next two–Charlie Bradshaw and John Ray–also never had head coaching jobs again. UK isn’t the job you want if you have greater aspirations.
We’ve tried everything with our coaches. John Ray was a hot-shot assistant at Notre Dame. Curci was an up and coming mid-major coach (yes, the University of Miami was a mid-major in the early 1970’s). Claiborne was an established, successful coach and UK grad. Curry was an A-list coach hired away from Alabama of all places. Mumme was a Division III superstar. Morriss was the emergency interim coach. Brooks was an old pro with decades of experience. Joker is the loyal assistant. Some were better than others, but no one could push us over the top.
For years, UK fans believed that the head coach was to blame. The right coach and everything will be great. Now, there seems to be a growing resignation that there is no right coach. UK isn’t a “destination” job–unless you can’t find a job or want your career to abruptly end. I can assure you that when Urban Meyer took his year off he wasn’t waiting to see if Joker got fired. A lot of folks want rid of Joker but very few have ideas about a replacement. Oh, we still have a small–very small–contingent who believe that almost anyone would take the UK job. Most now despair that no one can help us.
Coaching football is not that difficult. Recently, I heard ESPN commentator and long-time NFL offensive lineman Mark Schlereth say: “The words ‘football coach’ and ‘genius’ don’t belong in the same sentence. It’s 300 pound guys hitting each other.” I know I shouldn’t say that, but it’s true. It’s football, not gene-splicing. This is especially true in college football, where the talent gulf between the haves and have-nots is huge. My ten-year old son can recognize many different offensive and defensive formations on TV. How did he learn to decipher such complexities? Madden Football. It’s not that tough. We can find someone who’s bright enough to coach a football team.
But, if that’s true, what’s the problem? This leads to my next point…
THE JIMMYS AND JOES
Someone once said “It ain’t about the x’s and o’s. It’s the Jimmys and Joes.” I don’t know who said that (it sounds like something Darrell Royal would have said), but it’s true. College football at the highest level is all about the players. Preparation, game-planning and play-calling are all neutralized by overwhelmingly superior talent. UK fans have come to accept that our program is light-years away from an SEC Championship roster.
At UK, we might recruit 2 or 3 four-star players a year. Every now and then, we grab a five-star. The teams at the top of the heap are getting 15 of these guys every, single season. When we have an injured starter, we may have to bring in a young man who simply lacks the skill to play at the SEC level. When LSU has an injury, it looks down the bench for another NFL player. That’s big difference that you can’t coach around.
The best quarterbacks at UK in the last 40 years are Tim Couch, Jared Lorenzen and Andre Woodson. Among them, they hold every significant record in school history. The all went to high school in Kentucky. Players of that caliber are a rarity in Kentucky high school football. We certainly don’t get enough to fill out a roster.
Joker is blamed for the current state of the roster. He was the recruiting coordinator under Coach Brooks, after all. Maybe a new coach would do better. Maybe not. We’ve been down that road before. The only thing encouraging about this is that our fan base has finally accepted that we lack a lot more than magic coaching to compete with the big boys.
For many years, UK fans moaned about coaching decisions as though a play or two could have made the difference in the most recent 50 point loss. It seems we’ve come to realize that the talent gulf is so great we may not be able to bridge it. Compounding that realization is that UK also has a history of NCAA recruiting violations. Even when we’ve cheated, it hasn’t helped. If you’re going to cheat, at least win in the process.
For the first time, I hear a growing consensus that we just don’t have players. Fans seem to have given up on improvement. They want these players to play well but don’t really think they can do it.
This takes me to my last point…
ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER
This line was how Dante envisioned the entrance to Hell. A growing number of UK fans feel the same way about Commonwealth Stadium now. Hope no longer springs eternal.
We UK fans like to think we are great fans. The best. I’ll engage in a bit of blasphemy and say that’s not true. Yes, we have attended football games where we had no chance to win. A lot of fan bases do that. We like to tailgate. Who doesn’t? The football program makes tons of money. In the SEC, I don’t how you wouldn’t make a mint. I’ve attended UK games regularly since the early 1980’s. When the season goes south, we don’t fill the stadium. I’ve been in Commonwealth Stadium with crowds of well below 20,000, regardless of the announced attendance. At the end of Bill Curry’s tenure, you could have shot arrows into the upper deck with no chance of injuring anyone. Expect a repeat of that if this season goes as badly as predicted.
Simply put, the fans are no longer entertained. 5-7 and 7-5 seasons are better than 1-10 (which we’ve seen), but they don’t inspire. Seven wins doesn’t mean we’re turning the corner. It just means we beat Louisville and the three cupcakes on the schedule plus some fellow SEC bottom feeders. Ho hum.
I don’t have any solutions, just observations. The atmosphere is as negative as I’ve seen since the last days of Bill Curry. Maybe worse. Of course, we open the season with Louisville. If we win, the old optimism will return–just long enough to lure us back. Heart break awaits. Oh well. GO CATS!