Recently, I’ve wanted to explore a take by Bryan the Intern on Kentucky Sport Radio last week, but frankly couldn’t decide (for the last week) whether I agreed with it at all, agreed 100%, or somewhere in the middle. In a well written, well-supported post BTI argued that winning wasn’t as important for UK football fans as having an exciting style of play, a charismatic quarterback, and competing well in losses. I’ve decided that I agree that the typical UK football fan is after something besides pure wins, but it is a little less ephemeral. What our fan base wants more than anything is a serious effort to win.
If there is one immutable truth in SEC football, it is this: while Vandy, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas, South Carolina and Kentucky all love to win, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, LSU, Alabama and Auburn have to win. The reasons for this are hard to pinpoint, but are grounded in part in culture, expectations, tradition and geography. Despite what in most cases are ample budgets, great facilities, awesome fan support and good coaching, the imperative to win division and conference titles and to compete for national titles just isn’t there for everyone. Even the staunchest UK football hawk probably won’t argue that the Wildcats belong in the former group. But if our program does not have the same compunction to win as say, an Alabama, does that mean that something else besides wins are important? While I found myself bristling at the suggestion that Cat fans were after something other than wins, it is hard to argue that we take a 6-6 season much better than, say, an Alabama fan.
I spent the majority of my youth in San Diego, where two teams with similar styles of play ruled the roost. San Diego State had the very philosophy that a team concerned with less than wins and losses ought to have. "Wear black, throw the ball, play at night." (That may or may not be a direct quote from the SDSU President when interviewing a prospective coach. My dad uses it as a quote, though the story may be apocryphal). The Aztecs had some amazing skill positions players over the years, aired it out constantly, and didn’t play a lick of D. Ever. SDSU was never going to be a Div-1 powerhouse, but it caught the attention of the community without ever winning big. In the end, the administration made a deal with the devil, or sorts. Recognizing that its fan base had parties to hit, waves to catch and was just biding time at a football game until the could order pizzas and listen to Bob Marley.
Of course when the Aztecs lost, no one not directly involved with the football program cared. Down here in the mid-south, with 250 days of rain a year and surrounded by teams in our conference with great traditions, I don’t think pure funball is going to do it. There is a little more at stake here.
In some ways, the San Diego Chargers were an NFL mirror of the Aztecs during that time. The offense dripped with top flight talent: Dan Fouts, Wes Chandler, Kellen Winslow, Chuck Muncie and Charlie Joiner. The defense was another matter. There really wasn’t one. There was a big difference, though. This wasn’t a gimmick; this is just how the team was. It wasn’t as if people didn’t care who won or lost. They cared. And the team cared. Guys like Winslow, Fouts, Hank Bauer, Louie Kelcher and Rolf Beirschke (a kicker who took the field despite living life hooked to a colostomy bag and who later both hosted Wheel of Fortune and dated Brooke Shields) played the game as hard as anyone I’ve seen since. Charger fans, despite living in 75 degree weather, were nuts. For all I know, they still are. Those Charger teams in the late 70s and early 80s got close, but they never had what it took to get to a Super Bowl or really, sniff an AFC crown. Still, people loved those teams, and still do. It may have been because they were exciting, but it also had a lot to do with the character of the players, who left everything out there time and time again.
Forgive me if it seems like I’ve gotten far away from my original point. I really haven’t. But when people suggest that UK should play "exciting" football or that having a lovable QB is essential, those are just different ways of saying they’d like to see an all out effort to win. Hal Mumme’s defenses were frustrating to watch, and sometimes he called plays like a twelve-year-old anxious to pad his quarterback’s stats. But I think what people enjoyed about the Mumme era, more than just the wide open offense, was the notion that Mumme was trying to win. The difference between losing by one and twenty-one was immaterial to him. If we took our lumps one week, he’d shrug and move on. If we were down by one and the other team had the ball late in the game, we’d let them score. Punts were fakes, late game reverses were called. It was a little unorthodox, but Mumme didn’t care how it looked or how vulnerable it made us as long as it helped pull an upset or two. More than the particular brand of offense, that is what people liked.
Yes, Jared Lorenzen may have been 15-31 as a starter and people still loved him. But it wasn’t for his rocket arm. They loved him because they could tell he cared. Even when his efforts were savagely misguided (see Gators, Florida 2002), they were efforts. To me the most enduring memory of Lorenzen was not anything he did on the field, rather it was his missive to fans who left the 2003 Arkansas game early, "Ya’ll are going to miss a hell of a football game." Indeed they would.
Aesthetics do count some in football, just not much. Wins count, but effort counts too. Frustration mounted in the Curry years because Cats fans didn’t sense any urgency from the coach or the teams. Early in the Brooks era, fans scratched their heads and wondered what we were trying to accomplish on offense. (While researching this article I was reminded that Shane Boyd went 15-43 for 205 yards and an 81 QB Rating while sharing time with Lorenzen under center during the 2003 season). It wasn’t so much a boring style of play as it was that fans didn’t feel we were moving forward and trying to get victories.
Last year we saw some of that some fan unrest creep into Commonwealth. It wasn’t because people didn’t like Mike Hartline (who, I’d argue, was actually one of the toughest kids ever to play here) or because the offense was boring, it was because elements of old Kentucky were also creeping in. When UK sleepwalked through first halves against Vanderbilt and Charleston Southern, then more or less fell apart in the BBVA Compass Bowl, I think fans started to question effort and commitment.
Whether that is fair is a matter of debate. But I think fan satisfaction with UK football stems almost entirely from whether the huddled masses believe that the players, coaches and administration are giving a maximum effort. That is why BTI has it right when he says that playing close in losses is important. When Florida backup QB Trey Burton runs for five touchdowns in a single game, well that isn’t supposed to happen. People are going to grouse. If we stop that same play half the time, the overall result isn’t much different, but on Monday morning big blue nation is past it and ready to cheer like crazy at the next game.
In short, winning six games, seven games, eight games, there is no magic number. Breaking streaks would be nice, but we’ve been living with them for some time. Plus, the longer they go, the more fun we’ll all have when we snap them. We can handle the streaks. Cat fans would love a gunslinger heading a 21st century offense that keeps the Cats in every game. But more than that, we want to see our guys "Hit ‘em in the mouth, from the first snap to the last snap."