The SEC is stony ground in which to try to grow a football team.
The Kentucky Kernel is out with the fourth installment of their four-part series about the Kentucky Wildcats football team, and in this one, they examine the most common meme among UK fans: "If we would just pay enough for a good coach, we could have a good program."
I have heard this said a lot, and I have no doubt I will hear it said again in this thread, and others. It is one of those "simple" answers to a difficult problem that we all want to hear, and want to believe. Nobody wants to hear, "No matter who you hire, and no matter how much you pay him, your program is going to suck for a long time. It may be better than what it is, but in the grand scheme of things, it is still going to suck."
I can hear it now. "Just look at Louisville!" Well, that argument can be had from two angles. It's true that Louisville is having some success this year, but they do play in a much weaker conference, and they almost lost at home to a fairly weak North Carolina Tar Heels team that had just lost the prior game to perennial ACC bottom-dweller Wake Forest. Imagine if that had been, say, at Florida in Gainesville. I don't think it requires a stretch of the imagination to see where that would wind up.
The other angle is that Louisville's current success is dependent almost entirely on their quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater. Like Tim Couch, Bridgewater is the kind of player that can get you wins almost single-handedly if you give him a chance to do so. If Bridgewater goes down, Louisville's season likely goes with him.
With that said, Louisville has a team largely comparable to ours except for one thing -- they have a more experienced defense. The problem is, that and Bridgewater is enough to give them a top 25 ranking and place them in position to win a BCS conference championship, even if it is by far the weakest BCS conference there is. That will help their recruiting, and just like before whenwas coach, the combination of a weak conference and solid coaching could produce a program that goes to BCS bowls. Eventually, that could lead to better recruiting and better teams. You can grow a team in a weak football conference like the Big East.
Which brings us back to Kentucky. Kentucky and Louisville are essentially similar programs in dissimilar situations. Kentucky plays in the toughest football conference in the country, a conference that has only a nodding relationship with UK's preferred sport, basketball. SEC schools are big enough and rich enough to field solid basketball teams in spite of their relative disdain for the sport, and it is much easier to succeed in basketball than football -- that's just a matter of math --85 scholarship players vs. 13.
So will hiring a new coach solve our problem? The odds are against it:
"People think that if we just had a great, big-name coach we could get things done here, but they have convenient short-term memories," said Oscar Combs, founder of The Cats’ Pause and member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
The Kernel goes on to point out that UK has tried this both with Jerry Claiborne and Bill Curry. Both those guys had won national and/or conference Coach of the Year awards before coming to UK, and both of them had coached their respective prior teams, Maryland and Alabama to multiple bowl games.
Claiborne wound up 41-46-3, 13-37 in the SEC in 8 years at Kentucky. Curry was 26-52 in 7 years, 14-40 in the SEC. What they have in common is that neither one of them won more than 2 games in the SEC, on average, per year. Both of them had years far worse than what Joker Phillips has suffered over many more seasons in charge, at least up until this season.
I am not going to sit here and argue that hiring a name coach won't help -- it will. In the short term, it will put more fans in the stands, which means more money for athletics in general. A new coach, especially one with a national name, might (and I emphasize, might) be able to get the facilities upgraded sooner rather than later. All this will help some, and at this point in time, with the malaise that has infected the football team, any help would be welcome.
But Combs is justifiably pessimistic:
"You probably going to see a coaching change, unless something drastic changes," Combs said. "Let’s just say for some magical reason a Rich Rodriquez or Mike Grundy comes in, if everything else stays the same, they are going to struggle.
"They may not lose to Western Kentucky, but they are going to struggle in every other game in the SEC."
I hate to say it, but history says he's right. The SEC is stony ground to try to grow a moribund program into a respectable one. We thought Rich Brooks had done it, but it turned out to be such a fragile flower that the first harsh winter killed it off. What we have left is little more than a young shoot, tended by a gardener who has fallen out of favor and is hemorrhaging support with every game he loses.
We can have hope, and excitement in the program with a new coach. We may, with careful scheduling, return to yearly bowls. But if you are hoping to compete for New Years Day bowls in sunny destinations or division championships, well, I think Combs is right.
Finally, a big kudos to the Kentucky Kernel on their outstanding series. It has been excellent, informative, and very solid student journalism.