While it doesn’t come as a surprise after his post-Bowl 80% declaration, hearing Coach Rich Brooks hang it up for the Cats truly leaves me both sad and inspired. After the Wildcats Bowl loss, coupled with Ball State’s overly disappointing season along with the Holidays, the urge and passion to blog dissipated. Today’s announcement has certainly rekindled that urge, and that is due in no small part to the achievements and success that Brooks has led the Wildcats through over the last 7 seasons.
There are some Cat fans that will point only to Brooks’ record against Florida and Tennessee as some sort of indictment of his ability, or some sort of “status quo” that Brooks maintained rather than advancing a program. Some will point to his failure to contend for the SEC East and therefore the SEC as a failure, or a reason to not be thankful that Brooks was here. Perhaps I am an optimist, or at bare minimum a defeatist, but to me, what Brooks accomplished at Kentucky was extraordinary, and not something I thought I would see in my lifetime.
Granted, there were no BCS aspirations for the Cats. No giant Sears Trophies or whatever they call it now, made it’s way to Commonwealth Stadium. Kentucky was never lauded under Brooks by the Tom Lemming’s or Rivals and Scouts as THE team to beat in recruiting. There were no Cotton Bowls. No Outback Bowls. No Peach Bowls. On paper, those folks who would clamor for everyone to wait just a moment before celebrating Brooks may indeed have an argument. Sub-.500 record (7 games under, to be exact), a Liberty Bowl appearance, 3 Music City Bowls, and never finishing above 3rd in their division of the SEC. At Florida, that will get you fired. At Kentucky, they mint bourbon bottles with your picture on them.
The numbers in and of themselves tell just a small snippet of a much larger story, totally devoid of context, and paying no attention to the virtual wasteland that Brooks took over. And while that hump was never crossed with Florida or Tennessee, and that gap between Kentucky and the SEC upper echelon still exists, the gap is smaller than it ever was in my lifetime, and I no longer look to Saturday’s with doom and gloom about the colossal ass thumping that Kentucky will have to endure.
Does that sort of positivity and progress continue under new head coach Joker Phillips? Hard to say. Many say Phillips was the architect of not only the offense, but also the recruiting, two areas where Kentucky has advanced more than many of us thought possible, and the credit for that is due in no small amount to the man who now wears the crown at Kentucky.
There will be ample time in the coming months for folks to critique Joker Phillips and his play calls this season and how that is bound to bode poorly for the Cats come fall. Folks will blame athletic director Mitch Barnhart for not ponying up facilities and money to keep Brooks employed. There will be a small minority of fans glad to see him gone, I’m sure, since in their minds Kentucky should be 12-0 each and every season. All that will have more than enough time as we hit the spring doldrums after signing day and before the spring game. So that can wait.
What can’t wait, at least for me, is reflection, gratitude, and a heartfelt thanks for the amazing 7 years in Lexington that was the Rich Brooks era. 8 wins in 06 after 9 the previous 3 years… combined. An upset at Georgia, snapping a 9-game streak against the Dawgs who had won the SEC the previous season. An 07 that started with an upset against #9 Louisville and included an appearance in Lexington of College Gameday and a triple-overtime win against #1 LSU. A 2008 that while not nearly as exciting and riveting as the previous season, saw Kentucky make inroads in recruiting that were shocking with the signing of two top-tier QBs in Ryan Mossakowski and Morgan Newton along with DeQuin Evans and Chris Matthews. This season, a season that began with Kentucky picked by both the Associated Press and the league coaches to finish dead last in the SEC East, saw the Cats be one game shy of finishing 2nd with upsets at Georgia and at Auburn. Truly a remarkable year, especially considering their starting QB in the toughest league in the country was a true freshman. Not to mention that it was Kentucky who delivered the hit heard round the world when they sent Tim Tebow to a Lexington hospital. All of that in addition to 4 consecutive Bowl appearances, 3 consecutive Bowl wins, and most importantly… making the Wildcat football program something to pay attention to. Something to not poke fun of. Something, in most unbelievable fashion considering where it started, to be proud of.
All of that possible because of the hand and effort of Rich Brooks. So forgive my positivity. Excuse my inability to see the gap (for now) between Kentucky and the Alabamas/Floridas/LSUs of the SEC. Disregard my inability to focus solely on the number of wins and losses while Brooks was in Lexington. For now, all I choose to focus on is two words for one Coach Rich Brooks: Thank You.
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