Those of us who remember the Paul "Bear" Bryant days have seen a lot of bad to mediocre football since his departure. We have joked about Kentucky's seemingly ability to "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory," unusual rulings by referees and freak plays.
During all those years, we've seen and heard the usual preseason hype only to see results that never matched the effort to generate excitement during the preseason. If you've been around UK football long enough, you know what I'm talking about.
Yes, there have been some great seasons interspersed in the paradigm from time to time. It always seemed, however, to end abruptly due to injuries to key players (Rick Norton comes to mind), scandals (the Charlie Bradshaw, Fran Curci and Hal Mumme probations), retirements (Claiborne & Brooks), and player deaths (Greg Page and Trent Digiuro).
If you're old enough to remember the "lock the gates" game in Bloomington which was preceded by the team bus crash, you know what I'm talking about. If you remember the ending of the 1993 Peach Bowl game, you know what I'm talking about. If you're old enough to have seen "the Bluegrass Miracle," you know what I'm talking about. If you're old enough to remember the two pass interference penalties at the end of the Tulane game in the Super Bowl, you know what I'm talking about. If you're old enough to remember the David Hunter fair catch signal that the refs missed in Neyland Stadium, you know what I'm talking about.
If you can remember Bernie Scruggs 98 yard run against Georgia and how it ended and what happened on the following play, you know what I'm talking about. If you remember how the Peach Bowl game against Clemson in the Georgia Dome, you know what I'm talking about. If you remember the days of the old Air Raid when Kentucky had a top 5 offense and almost no defense, you know what I'm talking about. If you remember Kentucky running four straight plays up the middle with Kentucky's smallest running back ever and failing to score the winning touchdown against Tennessee, you know what I'm talking about.
If you can remember these things, Saturday night's fiasco is nothing more than old hat...under the old paradigm. For the younger fans, you can ask about these travesties and I'll tell you about them in the comments section.
Even with the miserable seasons, there were bright spots from time to time. For instance, Blanton Collier is the last coach to leave with a winning record. He also beat Tennessee five times, tied them once and only lost twice during his tenure. Charlie Bradshaw beat Tennessee in his first season and again in his third season. John Ray beat Kansas State and Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, and also beat #1 Ole Miss with Archie Manning in his first season (1969). Ray, however, never won more than 3 games in any single season. Fran Curci beat Penn State two straight years, beat North Carolina in the Peach Bowl in 1976 and had a 10-1 record in 1977 while on probation. In his last season (1980), he beat Tennessee 21-10 at Commonwealth Stadium. If you had to sit in the end zone, you had to wipe the ice off the benches.
Jerry Claiborne didn't win a game in his first season, but followed that with a 6-5-1 record in his second season. That season ended with a loss to West Virginia in the Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham. He followed that with a 9-3 season and a win over Wisconsin in a return trip to the Hall of Fame Bowl. He didn't have another winning season until his last (6-5).
Bill Curry had one winning season while at Kentucky which ended with a final record of 6-6 after the loss to Clemson in the Peach Bowl. Hal Mumme had a 5-6 first season including a 63-28 home loss to LSU, but Kentucky's offense scored 348 points over the course of that season. That had the fans excited after Bill Curry's last team had only scored 138 points. Plus, Mumme turned the "deuce" loose. His second season opened by playing Louisville in the very first game held at Papa John's Stadium which Kentucky won 68-34. If you're old enough, you can't forget tight end Jimmy Haley's one-handed catch from Tim Couch in the Louisville end zone. The Wildcats finished the regular season with a 7-4 record and a date with Penn State in the Outback Bowl in Tampa. We lost that game 26-14 after leading at the half. Couch decided to go into the NFL Draft where he was the #1 pick by the Cleveland Browns. In his third season, Mumme took the Cats to the Music City Bowl and lost to Syracuse, finishing with a 6-6 season. He didn't have a winning final season the following year. The turmoil within his staff has been well documented as well as the recruiting violations. Mumme's biggest problem was a total disdain for defense. His refusal to control his program cost him his job. His new-fangled Air Raid, however, changed college football forever, but Kentucky is still recovering from the NCAA probation of the Mumme era.
Guy Morris lasted only two seasons, going 2-9 in his first and 7-5 in his second. Kentucky's probation kept them out of a bowl game. Morris left for Baylor in a huff after Kentucky refused to meet his financial demands.
I won't go into the Rich Brooks or Joker Phillips history because if you don't remember those days, you're just too young to understand Kentucky football over the longer haul. During all those years, Kentucky's lack of support was and is well documented.
The paradigm shifted with the hiring of Mark Stoops. Finally, the University of Kentucky was providing the resources needed for a top notch football program. It showed up in Kentucky's first two recruiting classes and we are now seeing it show up with stadium and other facilities renovations and improvements. Mark Stoops has lived up to his part by more than doubling the number of wins from the last two seasons. For us older fans who have lived through the darkest days, it doesn't matter how many more wins are gained this season. Mark Stoops and this edition of the Wildcats have already exceeded our expectations.
Through all of this, Mark Stoops has consistently maintained that "we're not there yet." I can't tell you how refreshing it has been to hear that because that's not what we've heard over the many years since Bryant left. The long suffering fans have heard almost every available excuse. Stoops offers no excuses for young Wildcats. He holds them (and his assistant coaches) accountable. He has consistently said, "we're not there yet," and he's still saying that.
I believe him while I've not believed previous coaches. I know we're not there yet, but also know what my eyes have told me. We're improving. Kentucky's defense may have played their best game against LSU until they ran out of gas. Remember, they didn't get much help from the offense, nor from the special teams.
After the last few weeks, we need to acknowledge that South Carolina isn't as good as they have been the last two years and Florida isn't the Florida that used to beat the living crap out of Kentucky. We also know that Vanderbilt is just plain awful this year. Winning against Vandy and South Carolina isn't anything special and playing Florida close doesn't mean much. I wonder if we could beat Florida today? After watching how they played against Missouri,I can't help but think we could.
I think we found out against LSU that our five wins may not have been special at all....unless you keep the perspective of the past two years. One thing we do know, Georgia is the only SEC East team to beat a SEC West team so far this season.
Things could be worse. Tennessee hasn't won an SEC game yet this year. Arkansas hasn't won a SEC game in 17 tries. Vanderbilt isn't even a shadow of what it was under James Franklin and is likely not to win a SEC game.
Perspective is something that needs to be considered. The following picture gives some perspective as it looks at the coaching records from Paul Bryant forward.
Since 1946 when Bryant was hired, only he and Blanton Collier have winning records. Bryant was goaded into leaving and Collier was fired. Only Fran Curci, Jerry Claiborne, Hal Mumme and Rich Brooks have won more than 40% of their games. Is it any wonder, then, that Joker Phillips was the coach who took Kentucky to under 50% overall winning percentage? If it wasn't him, it could have been someone else. We've had coaches who should have been fired much sooner than they were. I won't name names because the above picture tells its own story.
How did all these coaches do in the second year? Check the next two graphics and find out.
In order to compare how Mark Stoops is doing this year, let's look at how the other coaches did seven games into their second year and who each played played in their first seven games of their second year.
This is the reality of Kentucky football over the years. So, why am I optimistic?
Believe me, the optimism is fraught with caution, but I am of the opinion that the changes that the university has made will pay dividends in the future in terms of recruiting and, it is recruiting that will build the program. Mark Stoops and his staff are very good at recruiting, but they are also going to have to win to keep the momentum going.
They've already taken two steps forward by winning more games than the previous two seasons combined. LSU was one step back, not because we lost, but because we were not competitive.
I saw a lot of false hope and excitement this past week with all the predictions of walking into Tiger Stadium and leaving with a win. I thought it was possible, but highly improbable. Many of our freshmen and red shirt freshmen had never experienced Tiger Stadium or anything close to it. Florida's Swamp (Ben Hill Griffin Stadium) just doesn't compare. I've been to both stadiums and only Bryant-Denny Stadium's atmosphere in Tuscaloosa is comparable.
Our special teams play Saturday night was, especially, nothing special. The poor performance cost us any chance of being competitive.Stoops was in special teams coach Craig Naivar's face all night long, and he almost lost control when Tyler Brause failed to fall on the ball during the kick-off that LSU recovered. You can see his displeasure here and here.
What I like about Mark Stoops if the fact that he's refusing to let one game define his tenure. I hope our boys on the team feel the same way. Setbacks happen, often for no real reason. They just happen. The tone for the whole game was set in the opening kickoff. Whoever came up with the idea of lining up as if we were going to do an on-side kick should face what quality management calls "corrective action."
Before anyone goes all negative, think about what I've written. You still have reason to be optimistic. But, if you believe Mississippi State is going to come into Lexington with the idea of laying down, think again. They had Saturday off and they will take Kentucky seriously. Our sixth win, if there is to be a sixth win, isn't going to be against Mississippi State. Let's keep it real, folks.
Then again, I said the same thing before we beat #1 LSU at Commonwealth. So, what do I know?