Sunday's nationally televised debacle against the Cardinals, while not unexpected from the majority of UK football followers, was disappointing on several levels.
Not least of these was the inevitable hit the Wildcats took yet again on the ever-so-ambiguous-yet-important perception front. Folks close to the program keep telling everyone that it's a unit on the rise, and we keep seeing crushing defeats. Last year, UK was going to finally break through against a lame Tennessee squad. People bit, and swallowed a fat orange and white hook, barb and all. UT smacked the Cats again, 27-8 in Lexington (again).
This season, off probation and with a healthy dose of thus far unwarranted optimism, Kentucky laid an egg on ESPN in Week 1. How does this hurt the program?
Never mind that it's the University's biggest rival. Nevermind that it's brother against brother. Nevermind that it's on national television on Sunday night on ESPN primero. Nevermind that UK is in the SEC, the nation's best football conference. Nevermind that Kentucky is a Division 1 program where Bear Bryant got his chops.
Losing by 31 and giving up almost 60 points is flipping embarassing. It looks terrible, and sets up the rest of the season as a slow dirge towards ambivalence.
John Clay's blog had a fascinating (and upsetting) graphic on the worst defensive performances at UK since 1990 (15 years + ) and which defensive coordinator was manning the sidelines at the time.
Current DC Mike Archer does not fair well in this comparison. Granted, he is now in his second stint as DC in Lexington, but still, having 7 of the top (or bottom) 10 defensive performances is hardly an honor. And it sure makes one wonder about accountability.
In fact, one thing that frustrates UK fans to no end is the lack of accountability, from the athletic director to the water boy. Where is the pride?
As much as Big Blue Nation whines about Tubby Smith's recruiting troubles, it's only because they expect so much. But the UK football program has only recently begun to make inroads in head-to-head recruiting battles with rival Louisville and Tennessee, especially for the best the state of Kentucky has to offer talentwise.
This year, UK grabbed Micah Johnson, a top-50 recruit, and Corey Peters, another top UL target, in a class that was heralded as special. And maybe it will prove to be. But unless Offensive Coordinator (and ace recruiter) Joker Phillips can continue to convince prospective Wildcats to be patient in the rebuilding -- and one wonders how many times you can say it's "the year" -- those recruiting battles are going to swing away, especially when the evidence is there for everyone to see on a holiday weekend's Sunday night.
Maybe a few surprise wins over SEC foes will make this bulletpoint irrelevent. I sure hope so. But the next time Phillips or head coach Rich Brooks goes into a kid's living room in Bowling Green, Owensboro or Hopkinsville and says "Here's why you should attend UK and not UL," what would you think?
Hearts & Minds
The fans of Kentucky basketball have been alternately called rabid, crazy, insufferable, diehard, misguided and unrelenting, all of which are probably true. Expectations rule the roost in the Big Blue Nation's hoops psyche.
But UK football fans have no such labels. Why? Because whatever ones are left are so beaten into submission that they deserve only accolades. Fairweather fans jumped ship with Hal Mumme. Only optimists and those too freshly minted to know better likely remain.
UK's football fans deserve better than to be lied to each and every year, to be told a new set of reasons why this is the year, to be given a team that -- however hard is it trying -- is not worthy of its namesake.
I don't blame the players. They are recruited, taught and assembled based on their performance. This isn't the NFL.
I do blame the athletic administration, whose ability to field a winner has never looked so bleak, and whose eternal patience (however admirable) seems destined to bury the passing Kentucky fan, or to instill in Big Blue Nation a depressingly immutable truth: You cannot win at Kentucky.
Is it the truth? I sure hope not. And given the uptick in local gridiron talent in recent years, one would think not. Maybe all this soul-searching will seem laughable by Week 6 or 7. Then again, for any fan who has stuck by the football Wildcats -- for a damned generation, no less -- soul-searching is a rite of passage, lamentable though it may be.
Are these costs too much to pay to be a Kentucky football faithful? Hard to say. One thing is for certain, unlike in basketball, you don't turn around a program in a year, or even two. Especially not in the SEC.
But somewhere along the line, whether it is Brooks or his successor, the tenor of the program -- the ethos, the whole aura surrounding the team -- has got to be changed.
Because right now, it stinks.