Over the past weekend, former Kentucky Wildcats football coach Rich Brooks was inducted into the UK Hall of Fame. It was a well-deserved honor for the man who brought Kentucky from probation to four straight bowl bids. But life at Kentucky was not always a batch of well manicured tomato plants for Papa Brooks.
Entering his fourth season at Kentucky, Brooks was just 9-25 and the pressure was on for the school to "Ditch Rich". Season number four did not look promising as the Wildcats dropped a season-opening 59-28 loss to the hated Louisville Cardinals. After a couple of wins, the Cats dropped yet another game to the Florida Gators to the tune of 26-7 and had a much closer than it should have been 45-36 win over Central Michigan. The low point was an uninspired 49-0 drubbing on the road to the powerhouse LSU Tigers.
If what had passed for Twitter back in the day would have taken root, we could have heard the end of the Rich Brooks era at UK.
Fast forward to this year. After taking over for Joker Phillips in what was probably the lowest point for Kentucky football since the probation, Mark Stoops was 12-24 after three seasons. The Cats opened season four with a crushing season-opening defeat to Southern Mississippi. Yet another loss to the Florida Gators followed then UK had a much closer than it should have been win over New Mexico State. And a trip to powerhouse Alabama looms.
There are no "Fire Stoops" bumper stickers in Lexington. The 2016 version of that is nasty, disgusting, vindictive personal rumors that have taken root and poisoned Twitter and social media. As was the case with Brooks, there is a growing concern that Stoops may not be the future of Kentucky football. Brooks even alluded to it over his Hall of fame weekend ceremonies.
When asked if he could empathize with the current UK football coach, Mark Stoops, Brooks said, “I totally know what he’s experiencing here right now.
“And,” Brooks added, “remember they sold ‘Ditch Rich’ T-shirts in the parking lot here.”
We all know what happened after that 49-0 loss to LSU. Kentucky won four games in a row and capped an 8-5 season with a 28-20 win over Clemson in a bowl game. Along the way, players like Andre Woodson, Wesley Woodyard, Stevie Johnson, Jeremy Jarmon, Trevard Lindley, Dicky Lyons, Micah Johnson and others grew up before our eyes and cemented themselves in Wildcat lore.
Why can't the same happen in 2016? After the game to Alabama, Kentucky has winnable games on the schedule with Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and Austin Peay at home along with a road trip to Missouri. It's not sexy, but those wins guarantee a 6-6 record and a bowl bid and that may be all this team may need to turn the corner and give them that swagger back that Rich Brooks helped install.
It's just a tad bit ironic that yet another Stephen Johnson could lead this team back to a bowl, but there are plenty of other players to fall in love with on this team and they deserve your support. Even though it has been a rough start to the season, you can not deny how fun it has been to watch Johnson, Benny Snell, Jordan Jones, CJ Conrad and other emerge. And how much the "older", established guys like Boom Williams, Jojo Kemp, Jeff Badet deserve a bowl and how much fun it will be to watch Derrick Baity and Chris Westry continue to emerge.
I get that a win over a South Carolina team that was 3-9 last year was not a blip on the radar of college football. There is a lot of work to be done and one good game does not erase the sting of the defense being called out as the worst in the history of college football. And I know that Alabama looms on the schedule and the anti-Stoops crowd will be back out with a vengeance again.
I've been vocal in my displeasure of Stoops but I loved the passion and the fire I saw from him last night. I love how this team responded to that and I loved to see how much they wanted to win for him. That is something that has been missing so far in the Stoops era and I am encouraged by that.
Hopefully, this team can take a trip to Alabama as a learning and a bonding trip and let it trigger something in them. Just like that trip to LSU did for UK in 2006.