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The Heaven... and The Hell... of Being a UK Football and Basketball Fan

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For at least my 36 years on this Earth, the gridiron 'Cats and the hardwood 'Cats have had much different annual trajectories. The ends of the emotional spectrum that a UK fan goes through from August to April is part of what forges such passion from the BBN.

Every article I have written for A Sea of Blue has had a broad target of Big Blue Nation along with anyone else willing to read it.  I have decided to step out of the normal format and pay homage to the members of BBN who have endured misery... and those same ones who have experienced euphoria over the years.  While I hope any and everyone will read it, this article will only relate to a specific portion of BBN.

There are four types of UK fan out there:

  • UK Football Only (much respect to these masochists)
  • UK Basketball Only (no begrudging them, but they just will not understand)
  • UK Basketball Fan / "Insert winning program" Football fan (in a word, unacceptable)
  • UK Football and Basketball fan (those who live and die by the Blue and White from August through April)

I dare say there is no truer fan of sport, than the Kentucky Football Fan, also known as "The Fellowship of The Miserable," according to Bill Curry.  To be a Kentucky Football means you have had your teeth kicked in, your heart ripped out, and the very soul reaped from your body... only to come back for more every Saturday.

The measure of one's fandom is somewhat based on how hard you root for your team.  However, how you stick with your team through the tough times is the most authentic indicator.  Kentucky football fan has endured far more excruciating moments than celebrated ones.  To stick through the tough times of Kentucky football the way BBN has, with little to no light at the end of the tunnel is more than admirable, it is the pinnacle of altruism.

On the other hand, being a Kentucky Basketball fan is the antithesis of being a UK Football fan.  The hardwood version of the ‘Cats have a litany of wins and championships and instances of grasping victory from the jaws of defeat.

UK basketball fans have this little feeling in the back of their head in every close game; "No worries, we will find a way"... and generally, we do.

UK Football fan also has a feeling; that feeling in the back of their mind that screams "when is it going to happen, when are we going to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."  Unfortunately, the de facto self-fulfilling prophecy generally happens.

You do not have to look deep to recall some of the more poignant heartbreaks of being a UK football fan:

  • 1965: Kentucky turns down an invite to the Gator Bowl, only to get upset by Houston and lose to Tennessee to get left at home during bowl season
  • 1980: Tulane is down 22-21 with 12 seconds left and they had the ball on their own 6-yard line.  94 yards from pay dirt, Tulane throws a hail mary and gets a pass interference call.  The ball is spotted where the foul occurred.  The next play Tulane throws another hail mary, another pass-interference call.  Tulane kicks a field goal with no time on the clock to win.
  • 1987: with a bowl game on the line, the 5-5 ‘Cats watch Mark Higgs go 0-4 from inside the 5-yard line to lose against Tennessee.
  • 1993: Florida throws SEVEN interceptions, only to beat Kentucky on a fitting Steve Spurrier gamble.  With eight seconds left and the Gators in field goal range for the win, he goes for the end zone and Chris Doering becomes an enemy of the state.
  • 1993: Marty Moore in the Peach Bowl with a game clinching interception... but runs it out of the end zone only to fumble.  Clemson recovers and scores later to win.
  • 1995: Billy Jack Haskins leads the ‘Cats to a 31-16 over the #4 Vols, only to see Peyton Manning and the Vols score the final 18 points to win.
  • 1996: Tim Couch debuts in the swamp in Florida... running the option, loses 65-0
  • 2001: Jared Lorenzen and the ‘Cats jumped out to a 21-0 lead over the #6 Vols, only to see the game come down to a Chase Harp fumble inside the 30 yard line as the ‘Cats were charging to a tie or victory.
  • 2002: The Bluegrass Miracle; I do not have to detail this heartbreak, we all know.
  • 2003: Losing in seven overtimes to Arkansas
  • 2003: Kentucky leads Florida 21-3 going to the fourth quarter, but a few scores and a Jared Lorenzen pick-6 ruined the dream of ending the streak.
  • 2004: Kentucky loses to the Ohio Bobcats
  • 2006: Kentucky leads #19 Tennessee in Knoxville going into the fourth quarter.  After UT takes a late lead, the ‘Cats were inside the 10-yard line with first and goal for the winning TD, only to see a disastrous delay of game penalty thwart UK and another UT heartbreaker.
  • 2007: Kentucky had a chance to keep UT from winning the SEC east in Commonwealth Stadium.  The ‘Cats were down by three and got all the way to the 1-yard line with seconds to play.  Andre Woodson overthrew an open Keenan Burton on third down and UK settled for a FG and overtime.  Kentucky had another chance to win in OT but had the kick blocked, eventually losing in five overtimes to the SEC east champs.
  • 2008: Kentucky is down 42-38 at Georgia with 50 seconds left.  They have first down at the Georgia 12 yard line.  A Randall Cobb interception ended the game.
  • 2009: If Kentucky beats UT in the season finale they finish second in the east and earn a likely new years day bowl game.  Down by three points with first and goal, inexplicably Randall Cobb does not touch the ball and we go three and out settling for a tying field goal and overtime.  The Vols win almost immediately in OT, and Kentucky goes from second in the East to fifth.
  • 2012: Losing to Western Kentucky on a trick play 2-point conversion
  • 2014: UK loses to Florida on a missed delay of game penalty
  • 2014: Kentucky loses to Louisville on a dropped interception.

Unfortunately, more can be referenced.

The crazy thing is how the success between the two program's failures or successes never seems to parallel.  It is almost as if the basketball gods will not allow Kentucky Football and Basketball success to coexist.  Even going all the way back to the golden days of UK football under Bear Bryant; it was still a version of Lucy pulling ball away from Charlie Brown.

In 1951 the Football ‘Cats behind Bear Bryant beat undefeated, #1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.  In the modern world, this would have been a national title, however, back then the champion was crowned before the bowl games.  Later that year, Adolph Rupp's team would win the national title in basketball.  UK could have been the first program to win Football and Basketball titles in the same year.

Bear Bryant would leave two years later for being second fiddle to the basketball program.  In what is the biggest "what might have been" move in Kentucky fandom history... the Bear would go on to be the SEC's greatest coach and possibly the best of all-time in the sport.

Since Bryant left the Bluegrass, the football ‘Cats have never made it to any of the bowls Bryant took them too (Sugar, Cotton, Orange) and they have been brought up under NCAA sanctions twice.  The frustrations mounted so high that "the Curse of Bear Bryant" is a real thing in the Commonwealth.

THE ROLLER COASTER OF TODAY'S UK FAN

Fast-forward to more recent times; when you compare the programs from the 90's through today, it is amazing to see the lack of parallels in the programs.

The 90's were a golden era for UK basketball under coach Rick Pitino; winning titles in 1996 and 1998 to go with a runner-up in 1997.  Conversely, during the 90's, UK football was a nightmare.  The program was under the direction of coach Bill Curry from 1990 to 1996, going 26-52.

Once Hal Mumme took over, we were all under the impression that better days were ahead.  SEC championships were on the horizon and Kentucky was to be a football school as well as basketball.  Mumme would lead the ‘Cats to back-to-back bowl games, however, he quickly ruined the joy of UK football fan when he went 2-9 and resigned amidst major NCAA infractions the following season.

Guy Morris would take over the program; after a rough first season, he would lead the ‘Cats to a 7-5 record (would have been 8-4 if not for the bluegrass miracle), and as the fate of UK football fan would have it; the ‘Cats were banned from a bowl game due to Mumme's infractions that season.

Rich Brooks would take over in 2003 to abysmal initial results.  While the gridiron ‘Cats were struggling to a 9-25 record during Brooks' first three seasons, the basketball ‘Cats were thriving with a 87-15 record over that time.

It all changed under Rich Brooks in 2006 when the ‘Cats would win 8 games including a bowl win over Clemson.  Brooks would win 8, 7, and 7 games over the next three seasons with each ending with a bowl game and wins over the likes of Clemson, Florida State, #1 LSU, #4 Louisville, a top 10 ranking, and ESPN College Gameday making its debut on campus.

During that same time, the basketball ‘Cats saw coach Tubby Smith lose 25 games over a 2-year span and not make it out of the first weekend of the tournament either season.  Tubby left town and the notorious Billy Gillispie took over... we all know about that train wreck.

2010 would be coach John Calipari's first season in Lexington and he would take the ‘Cats to a #1 ranking and an elite 8 appearance.  Calipari would go on to a final four the following year, then a National title.  Conversely the Football ‘Cats brought in head coach in waiting Joker Phillips.

Phillips would take the keys to the BWM that Rich Brooks had left him and somehow turn it into a Ford Yugo over that same period.  Only fitting that a Kentucky guy who played for the Wildcats and so badly wanted the job, would turn it into a dumpster fire.

BETTER DAYS AHEAD...  THE BEGINNING OF DUAL SPORT SUCCCESS?

We all know what we have as long as Coach Calipari is here; we have a winner of the highest degree.  Therefore, the question becomes, what is going to come of Kentucky Football while we have this short window of time with Coach Calipari giving us perennial national title contenders.

For the first time in my lifetime, I feel like UK Football and Basketball can both be winners for us dual BBN members.  Stoops has an entrenched foundation that is led by the best recruiting and administration support this program has ever seen.  If you need a reminder, just remember the "recruiting room" that Coach Brooks had.

Recruting Room

I drudged up the past heartbreaks for a reason; I think we are on the verge of something special in Lexington under Coach Stoops.  In order to appreciate the wins properly, you have to remember just how miserable the losses were.  The saying goes "you don't know what you've got, till it's gone," this is accurate the other way.  You do not know just how bad you had it, until the good comes along.