We are beginning to seriously approach the kick-off to the 2008 football season, and over the next few weeks, we are going to be taking a very in-depth look at the first game of the season -- our arch-rivals, the Louisville Cardinals. But before we start talking players and numbers (Ken still isn't done looking at the Kentucky depth chart yet), I just wanted to make a quick comparison of the moods of Kentucky and Louisville football fans and programs.
Coming into 2007, both U of L and UK fan bases were expecting big things from their respective teams. Louisville was coming off a big BCS game victory in a 2006 season which found them at one point in the national discussion for the BCS title game. Folks, it doesn't get any bigger than that, and with all the experience and talent they had returning, Cardinal fans can be forgiven for having dreams of grasping the brass ring. Kentucky was coming off it's first bowl appearance since 1998, and returning a powerful offensive machine, but nobody expected much more than a middling bowl out of the 'Cats (which is exactly what happened).
But something happened on the way to the coronation. Bobby Petrino, in my opinion the most ethics-challenged coach not under a "show cause" order from the NCAA, departed Louisville, and Tom Jurich quickly hired Steve Kragthorpe, former coach of Tulsa, to be the next Cardinals football coach.
What followed, in a nutshell, was a shock for Cardinal fans. Despite a lot of national hype and expectations, the 2007 version of Louisville was a dismal disappointment. The first sign was coming into Commonwealth Stadium undefeated -- and then this:
The loss to Kentucky was a season-ruiner, but the Cardinals could have still come alive and had a good year. We all know how history turned out, though. The low point came when Syracuse, then 0-3 coming in to Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, defeated the Louisville team 38-35 in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the score. Mike Rutherford of the SBNation's excellent Card Chronicle, normally a voice of reason and sanity among an increasingly restive fan base, found that loss a bridge too far:
Somebody asked me last week how I felt about the growing "fire Kragthorpe" movement, and I half-jokingly said that if this guy can invent a way to lose to Syracuse then I'll be all for it. Now I'm not for firing a coach before the end of his first season, and I'm not going to let this site become one where we focus on how much we dislike the head coach more than we do supporting the team, but my God, name ONE positive thing this guy has accomplished since Aug. 30.
Despite this outburst of frustration, Mike has never honestly suggested that Kragthorpe should be fired, and despite the kind of provocation that had some Kentucky fans and others calling for Gillispie's head early last basketball season, he and most of the sane Cardinal fans managed to get through the season over on his blog. Apparently, not so much at other Cardinal on-line sites, according to Mark Story's article today.
In the interregnum since, Louisville has struggled with attrition, losing some 21 players to early draft entry, dismissal, transfer, academics and medical issues. Hype and hope have been replaced by a lowering of expectations and talk of "rebuilding" over the next two years.
So that brings us up to date with Louisville, so now it's time to look at UK. Despite losing almost all of it's storied offensive skill players, Kentucky returns an experienced defense, an experienced offensive backfield and an improving offensive line. While football expectations in the Bluegrass are never through the roof if you don't count the early part of last season, Kentucky football fans are arguably in the happiest mood since the days of Derrick Ramsey and Sonny Collins. UK is clearly a football program that is improving, even though in the hyper-competitive SEC, that improvement may not translate into many more victories anytime soon.
Back in 2005, I remember lots of calls for Rich Brooks' head, and as recently as early 2006, through the magic of SBN 2.0's search feature, I recall JL Blue's comments heading into the 2006 season:
As I have previously admitted in these pages, I am not much of a Kentucky football fanatic. While I dutifully check the cross-country scores in the paper on Sunday mornings and will watch a game on the rare occasion it's not national television, like many Kentucky fans I'm nervously pessimistic.
That's what decades of losing will do to a fan.
Indeed, and it has jaded the perception of most Kentucky fans. To say that we are satisfied with less success in football than the Cardinal fans is an understatement -- Kentucky fans are used to losing,and losing a lot. With that reality has come the understandable reflex of low expectations. In that same 2006 season, those reflexes were again validated against Louisville, who swamped the 'Cats in embarrassing fashion 59-38, prompting this comment from JL:
This loss was ugly, and on national television. It showed very little progress from last year, and if the Cats want to make strides, quite simply, they need to play way over their heads.
All in all, a dispiriting start to the 2006 season, and one which better motivate Brooks and his staff, or they will be seeking new employment next offseason.
How far have we come since then? Pretty far, but it looks even more impressive if we take the last 10 years or so into consideration. As Louisville has been rising on the national stage over the last 10 years, up until 2006 the Kentucky program has been mired in futility, scandal, and disappointment. As of the time of JL's posts above, UK football had managed to get to .500 on the year only three times since 1994, and above .500 only twice. That is two winning seasons in 11 years, no matter how you count it. Louisville, in that same time frame, had exactly two losing seasons and nine consecutive bowl appearances. But over the last five years Rich Brooks and his staff have slowly, but steadily and with purpose, set out to change both the perception and the reality.
The shoe isn't exactly on the other foot now, but Kentucky is no longer a sure victory on the Louisville schedule. Two straight winning seasons with post-season bowl victories against traditional ACC powerhouse programs have radically improved the perception of Kentucky's football program everywhere but inside the SEC, where it has generally received only a tepid acknowledgment. I have read somewhere (but I cannot seem to find it) that UK is only a three point underdog to Louisville in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium in the pre-season prognostications for this year. Given a Louisville team only one year removed from a major BCS bowl victory, that says something about the sea change that has taken place in the perception of these two teams.
But how about the coaches? Well, no doubt their situation could not be any more different. Brooks is now seen as the Great Rebuilder of the Kentucky football program, and Kragthorpe is, to say the very least, on the hot seat at Louisville after only one year as head coach. The Mark Story, in the article I linked above, puts it this way:
In all my years following sports in the commonwealth, I've never seen a fan base turn against a coach as dramatically and vociferously as (many) Louisville football fans turned on poor Kragthorpe in 2007.
Folks, that says it all. Hot seat? I'm not sure the temperature of Kragthorpe's chair can be accurately measured with current technology.
Kentucky, up until mid-2006, expected to lose -- to almost everybody. We didn't like it. We groused about it. Most of us actively hated it -- but we knew what we were -- a moribund football program at a basketball school. Is that changing? Yes, but gradually. Kentucky fans are still leery of getting too excited about football for at least two very good reasons: History and the conference we play in. There is no comparison between the Big East and the SEC, top to bottom, in quality. None. Which means that even if UK were able to go to bowls every year, the odds are it would be doing so without ever having a winning record in the SEC. Winning the conference, even the Eastern division, still looks like a pipe dream to all but the most radical Kentucky fan. All you have to do is look at this earlier post to see how this fact is mirrored in UK's football recruiting.
So as we go into the Governor's Cup game this year, the big subplot will be waiting to unfold. Lose this game at home, and the cries for Kragthorpe's head will be deafening, perhaps even irresistible. Brooks, on the other hand, will barely hear any recriminations for a loss at Louisville this year. Of course, if the rest of the season takes a nose-dive there will be some grousing, but it would take a complete implosion to something like 2 or 3 wins to cause even a few of the UK faithful to gather up pitchforks against Brooks & Co. There is a completely different feel to these two teams, and Louisville is on very, very thin ice.
How quickly things can change in college sports.