UK football: Why all the high anxiety?

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It all began on the ride home from the Western Kentucky football game.  My good friend Larry Vertrees and I were sitting in the parking lot, otherwise known as Versailles Road, inching our way toward the Bluegrass Parkway, while listening to one of the various football post-game call-in shows.  As we sat sipping our coffee, and wondering if we would get home before Meet the Press, we began to hear a common theme unfolding on the call-in show; there seemed to be a number of disconcerted UK football fans voicing their displeasure at having Mike Hartline as the starting Wildcat quarterback.

One call, then two, then three, all echoing the same thing; 'When Cobb comes back he needs to be the quarterback.' 

I'm thinking to myself, "Do these people know that this kid (Hartline) has started exactly four games?"  The old, "the best quarterback is holding a clipboard" mentality came to mind. 

Those that pine for Cobb talk about a couple of good runs he had versus Norfolk State, but refuse to consider how ineffective he was in the second half, where he had one interception (should have been three) and one fumble versus a I-AA team.  Replacing Hartline with Cobb as the starting quarterback for an SEC game would be suicide by incompetent decision. 

But, my intention is not to dissect whether Hartline is the answer at quarterback or not, but rather to illustrate my first bit of discontent that exists, at the moment, in the world of Kentucky football. 

The second sewn seed of discontent came after the Alabama game when UK sophomore running back Derrick Locke issued a call-to-arms in regards to UK's lack of a running game.

Cue Locke's admonition:

"Honestly I feel like we're relying too much on the passing game.  I don't know if it's Coach not trusting us with the run game.  I really don't know, but I feel like the running back's need some more touches.  They keep saying we're not running.  We haven't had a running back that had over 100 yards rushing (in a game) yet.  You can't get that with six carries, four carries, three carries.  You just can't make it happen.

You've got to let your running backs get in the groove.  You want to establish a rushing game, a run game, you've got to hand us the ball.  You've got to hand us the ball.  We can't just pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass and then all of the sudden run three or four times, run five times, and have your running back get six carries.  The rushing game is not going to get established that way."

Locke, being a player, has more insight than the average fan, but his tirade to reporters crossed the line of good player conduct, in my view.  I understand the kid is frustrated, but he has to keep those feelings and emotions confined within the parameters of the team unit.  Not go all T. O. on his coaches.

Speaking of coaches, here is Brooks reply to Locke's words:

"Ask (Locke) about the power play that was wide open on the outside that he could have broken for 10 more yards without being touched.  He ran into a pile.  I'd like to run the ball better and more often, and if we gain more yards when we run it, we'll run it more often."

Ouch.

Once again, my intention is not to debate the wisdom of Locke's statements, or Brooks' response, but rather to point out yet another area of discontent that exists within the world of UK football.

Thirdly, I read in the Herald-Leader where UK offensive coordinator Joker Phillips has an e-mail in-box full of advice on how to jump-start the UK offense, that being; run the ball.  What sage, and illuminating syllables of wisdom.

Fans e-mailing Joker to tell him to run the ball more?  Even a screen door salesman in Alaska doesn't have that much time on his hands.

Let's see; Joker played four years at UK, two years in the NFL, one year in the CFL, and has been a collegiate assistant coach since 1988.  He's coached at UK, Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Minnesota, and South Carolina ... I think he knows that UK "needs to run the ball."  

Phillips was very forthcoming while answering a reporter's question about the e-mails he's received that were critical of his performance:

"When we were having success, I didn't take it like I knew everything or I was the guru.  I understand that when things are not going well, I'm going to get the criticism.  That's fine.  That's what I signed up for.  We're not doing well offensively, and I accept that criticism."

Phillip's response to the e-mailers saying that he should run the ball more:

"Sometimes I tell them thank you or thanks for the input.  And I have said, 'Thanks for the input, if you really want to help, get here at 5 o'clock.  A. M.' " 

I love going to high school practices and watching other people's film.  Those people are experts.  The people on the outside that send e-mails, they don't have a clue.  Sometimes I do tell the e-mailers, 'You are right, now how should we block it?' "  

Yes, UK needs to improve their running game, and yes the offense isn't awe-inspiring, but for those who have become overly critical of the coaching staff and players, I say take a look at the scoreboard.  UK is 4-1, they aren't anywhere near the offensive powerhouse that they have been last two years, but they are improving.  And besides, we probably don't know enough about football to know that the offensive talent Kentucky accumulated for the '06 and '07 seasons is not sustainable for UK ... yet.  Very, very few college football programs are capable of fielding an offensive juggernaut every year.   

That's something many nouveau rich UK football fans need to confront and accept ...at this point, anyway.

Now, I'm not saying that coaches are above criticism, quite the contrary.  But this is neither the time nor the place to offer up lame advice to the most successful group of UK football coaches over last 60 years or so.

My final point is this question: Why all the anxiety?

  • The team is sitting at 4-1.
  • They're coming off of a game where they gave Alabama more problems than their other five opponents, combined.
  • They are set up to win at least six, and as many as eight or nine games. 
  • This is the best UK defense since 1977 (that 10-1 team gave up 111 points in 11 games). 
  • UK has a sophomore quarterback who is playing light years ahead of Andre' Woodson at the same age.
  • They have arguably the best UK football recruiting class in school history coming in.
  • They are two wins away from playing in their third straight bowl game.  A feat not accomplished since 1949-'51.

So Big Blue angst-ridden Nation these are times to enjoy, not deride; we are witnessing the construction of a future super power (hey, one can dream)... it's like watching your child grow up.  But we do have steps to follow, and it takes time.

Finally, I have to say that the e-mailers remind me of fifteen years ago or so; Rick Pitino was coaching the basketball team, and on his call-in show one night he related to the listeners that he had received a letter from a surgeon ( I believe the doctor lived in Hazard ) which included some coaching advice.  There was even a diagram of an inbounds play for Pitino to ponder. 

Pitino said that he wrote the doctor back.  In his letter, he said that he told the surgeon this (paraphrasing): Don't tell me how to coach, and I won't drive down to Hazard and tell you how to perform surgery.  Classic Pitino.

Something to remember: If we all demanded as much from ourselves as we do our favorite team's coaches and players, we'd all be millionaires.

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats, beat SC!

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