I will go ahead and admit it right now; I fell for the hype last offseason. I wrote this article asking if the Big Blue Nation was ready for seven wins. In my defense though, we were a bad call (Florida) and a dropped interception (Louisville) from going 7-5 so maybe it was not that crazy.
Around this time last year, there was the hype of Patrick Towles emergence as a starter, which came with some lofty expectations based on his high school performance. There was the idea that we were loaded at Running Back with JoJo Kemp, Braylon Heard, Josh Clemons, Mikel Horton, and Boom Williams in the fold.
Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith were bookending a front line as seniors and future NFL Picks. Mark Stoops had his second full class on the field and both were two of the highest rated classes the school had ever brought in.
If you put all the connections together while wearing your blue goggles, (mine were certainly on tight), it seemed like the stars were aligning for UK to be the nation's breakout team of the season. While it is hard to label last season a failure, losing our final six games still stings. It also hurt us in recruiting, but nonetheless it was a step forward for the program overall.
A Band-Aid on a Bleeding Artery
Kentucky fans just want to see a winner, they do not need to have National Title aspirations or even be the conference favorite, just field a winner. Few programs are starving more for a winner than the Big Blue Nation is and for the first time in my lifetime, we appear to be on the verge of getting one that is not built on a house of cards... allow me to explain.
The Hal Mumme era brought BBN some fleeting success, but it was quickly destroyed when the dust settled and SEC defenses started adjusting to the Air Raid and ultimately it was discovered the regime was cheating.
Guy Morris would take over for his one full season and take the ‘Cats to a 7-5 season (8-4 without the bluegrass miracle, sigh) without a bowl appearance, thanks to the sanctions levied against the school. This is a microcosm of the life of a Kentucky Football fan.
Rich Brooks would eventually make his way to Lexington and post nine total wins in his first three seasons leading to a near termination. Brooks would then lead the ‘Cats to an 8-5 season including a win over Clemson in the Music City Bowl.
The next season would see the ‘Cats again go 8-5 with a bowl win over Florida State, and regular season wins over #1 and eventual National Champion LSU and over Louisville when "Stevie Got Loose!"
The ‘Cats would take a slight step back in 2008 by going 7-6 with a bowl win over East Carolina. This made Brooks the first ever UK coach to win bowl games in three straight years.
This seemed to be exactly what the BBN had been so hungry for, a coach who was going to lead us to 6, 7, 8 wins and a bowl every year with a fun product on the field. The next season would still be a successful one, going 7-6 with wins at Georgia and Auburn but it would be Brooks' last season in Lexington. Once Brooks stepped away, so did all the progress he had made over his six years.
The reasons for Brooks leaving were not as simple as just stepping away, he may have had the administration's buy-in on paper, but he did not have the financial support for the much-needed facilities. The rifts between Brooks and the administration got out and it was clear that part of Brooks' decision had to do with not thinking he had the school's full buy-in.
"Well, we had plans that were kind of in place in 2009 at the end of the season that we were going to start an expansion of that same side of the stadium they're working on now ... but it didn't come into fruition," Brooks said. "So I knew it would be a long time before I saw any major improvements. That's one of the reasons that I retired."
Brooks told Kyle Tucker in that same interview that if all that were legitimately in the works while he was still the Cats' coach, he would have stuck around a while longer. One of the sticking points was apparently having a legitimate recruiting room to host players. Knowing what was used before these upgrades, I can certainly understand his frustration. I cannot imagine using a corner of Nutter Field house with folding chairs and a pull down projector screen as being too appealing to any SEC caliber players.
Success Built On a Good Foundation
Fast Forward to this season and Mark Stoops is staring down the barrel of a potential season similar to the ones we enjoyed under Coach Brooks or the one Guy Morris season. So why is this any different from the fleeting success we have had before... money, recruiting, and full buy-in.
Mark Stoops will be walking into a newly renovated Commonwealth Stadium with upgrades to the tune of 120 million dollars. Brooks' request for a recruiting room was rebuffed over a few million dollars, for context. The school has made football a priority, if not the top priority in its athletic department.
New rendering just finished. pic.twitter.com/svoTA2OXLN— Kentucky Kid (@_BigBlueNation_) May 15, 2015
The attention, money, and administration buy-in for the football program is unparalleled in the history of the University. Even Bear Bryant would be blown away by the 180 the administration has made.
Another reason this is a strong foundation is due to recruiting. No other coach has recruited kids to Kentucky better than Coach Stoops has, and more than any other sport; the Jimmy's and Joe's generally outweigh the X's and the O's.
Even when Kentucky has fielded competitive teams in the SEC, the one differentiating factor has been depth. UK has been fast, they have been big, and they have even had SEC talent in multiple areas. What they have not had, though, is the depth to be able to bring in a second unit that can hold its own with other SEC team's second units.
I put together a hypothetical two-deep (with help from my guy here at Sea of Blue, Will Marshall) based on the end of spring practice and the best part about this has to be seeing all the RS, for redshirt. Stoops now has SEC talent all over the field and he is dangerously close to having SEC depth to go with it.
Kentucky Football fans have long been tempted with success and promises of brighter days ahead. The ball has been pulled out from under them more times than Charlie Brown. Like Charlie Brown, they continue to come back repeatedly.
Coach Stoops is building a program on a trajectory that should fulfill Kentucky football fan's appetite for a winner and I think this season is the beginning of UK turning hype and sizzle into steak.
Imagine the attitude of the Coach Brooks era combined with the best recruiting we have ever seen and the full participation and buy-in of the administration. Better days ACTUALLY are ahead, finally.