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'08 Kentucky Football: Changing the culture

This is the first in a series of posts related to the beginning of the '08 football season.  We will break down, position by position, the 'Cats lineup and their prospects for having a successful campaign.  Today, I begin with the historical implications of the upcoming year. 

With Kentucky ending last football season with a 35-28 Music City Bowl victory over Bobby Bowden's Florida State Seminoles, they accomplished something not seen in these parts since 1951; back-to-back bowl wins.  Sure, UK has participated in many, many bowl games in which they had opportunities to win two bowls in a row.  Well, maybe not.  The sad fact is that Kentucky has only participated in back-to-back bowls twice since 1951.  Of course, it is difficult to go to back-to-back bowl games when the team has only had back-to-back winning seasons three times since 1956 ( '76-'77, '83-'84, '06-'07 ). 

Futility is synonymous with Kentucky football.  We all know this.  What astounds me is not the futility, but the magnitude of the futility.  UK has been playing football in the SEC since 1933.  In that time the Wildcats have posted a winning record in twenty-eight of those seasons.  That equals out to UK having a winning season 38% of the time ( 28 of 74 ) --  If the Kentucky basketball team has anything resembling a sub-par year, peoples heads explode -- not a number of be proud of if you're a fan of the blue and white.  Even worse, if one takes away the eleven seasons in a row that UK posted a winning record from '46-'56 ( Bear Bryant and Blanton Collier ), that drops the percentage to 27%.

Even Bryant, while he was head coach at UK, didn't dominate his opponents.  Bryant coached UK from '46-'53.  He posted a 60-23-5 record in his eight seasons, winning the SEC Championship, and the Sugar Bowl over #1 and undefeated Oklahoma in 1950.  But that's the only SEC title that Bear would ever win.  All he could muster were two second place finishes, and one third place.  Every other year Bryant's 'Cats ended up no better than fifth.  His SEC record was 22-18-4 ( good for a .500 winning percentage ) ; that'll get ya fired at Florida.   

The point is that even Bear Bryant, arguably the best college football coach in the history of the sport, couldn't win more than 50% of his league games while at UK.  Plus, Bryant's greatest success was propelled by the arms and legs of one player;  All-America, Babe Parilli.  Parilli played at UK from '49-'51, those three years happen to be the ONLY time UK has participated in three straight bowl games.  After Parilli graduated, Bryant never led UK to a bowl game again.  He finished his career at UK with a two-year combined record of 12-6-3.

To drive the final nail into my point: Since the 1978 season, the UK football team has a record of 9-95 versus ranked opponents.  9-95!  Unfathomable.

Thankfully, Rich Brooks and his staff of stalwarts, have laid a foundation upon which to institute a change of culture within the football program at the University of Kentucky.  The foundation he has laid is constituted of bigger, stronger, faster athletes.  Athletes that have been a rare commodity for the 'Cats over the last, oh, sixty years or so.   Athletes that now have an opportunity looking them square in the grille. 

Kentucky has never, ever won three bowl games in a row.  Kentucky hasn't had three WINNING SEASONS in a row since the eleven in a row from '46-'56.  That's fifty-two years without achieving more wins than losses, more than two years in a row.  But this group of players have a chance to reconstruct the winning way, left behind so many years ago.  This group of players can, with a winning season, change the nature of being a UK football player. 

Previously the most often heard quote from a UK football commitment was that the player "wanted to help build something good at Kentucky".  Building, building, building, it was always the same.  Now though, if a winning season can be attained, the refrain will change to; "I want to continue the winning ways of the UK football team."  There is a Grand Canyon of difference in those two statements, but Brooks has nearly bridged the gap.

Perception is the key word.  What the coaching staff and this group of players have in front of them is the chance to change the perception of the program.  The perception not only locally, among the fan base, but nationally.  Being perceived as a winner, a consistent winner, is vitally important for the life-blood of any program: recruiting.  Brooks has done a great job of spotting undervalued talent, but he can't win long-term without grabbing a few elite recruits every now and then.  I bet those elite recruits are much more responsive and inviting while being visited by a coach in possession of three straight bowl wins.  Ergo, the change in perception is most deeply felt in the living rooms of recruits.

The Kentucky program has been kicked around more than Richard Nixon, but the genesis of change is upon us ... IF this team can squeeze seven wins out of its schedule: Seven wins would fill up Commonwealth Stadium, and drive UL fans nuts ( hey, that's a double-dip ).  Seven wins would mark a new standard for UK football.  Seven wins would complete the foundation of the 'house' that Brooks built.  Seven wins would propel Kentucky football into a stratosphere reserved only for astronauts and insane millionaires.

Seven wins would also change expectations for the fans.  Suddenly we are expecting to win, demanding victories.  How many times have I heard, "If they win five games or so I'll be happy."  We fans have settled for mediocrity ( or worse ) for, well, forever.  Out of desperation we even settled for a 1-AA head coach ( Hal Mumme ), when shouts of displeasure should have been screamed.  That, is about to change.  Once a taste for the good life is acquired, an addiction is likely to form.  But, that's alright.  A demanding fan base can help push forward positive change.  It will be a welcome relief to expect victories, rather than expect the worse.  

Get ready, the Cards are only 68 days away.

Happy birthday Alex

Today is my oldest daughter Alex's 5th birthday.  Happy Birthday Alex!  And would someone please ask Matthew Mitchell to stop sending her letters.  She has a wicked two-handed, over-her-head, break-the-backboard set shot, but she can't read yet.

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!