It happened with Rupp’s Runts. And with the 38-1 Kentucky basketball team that stopped just this side of perfection. And the 2002 football Wildcats, who might be best remembered for a heartbreaking setback on a one-in-a-million, jailbreak touchdown bomb.
Each time it was a loss that brought a team closer to the fans. In ’66, it was Texas Western ending the dream. In ’15, Wisconsin in the Final Four. LSU pulled off the Bluegrass Miracle in ’02.
And it happened at the Music City Bowl in Nashville, where a Kentucky team that infuriated more than it inspired this season fell short by about the width of your hand to upsetting a good Northwestern team.
Had Stephen Johnson connected with Tavin Richardson on that two-point conversion, completing a most unlikely comeback, it would have gone a long way toward yanking a huge, season-long thorn out of the collective paw of the Big Blue Nation.
Fans who six years ago followed a program that had little hope of fielding a competitive team each week had watched the Wildcats win seven games for the second year in a row, landing yet another bowl bid. And still, they were unhappy.
It seemed improbable, given the sorry tradition of a team that has known success only in fits and starts but never for prolonged eras. So what was it about this season? Why were fans so angry all year?
Looking back, the answer might this this simple: Even in victory, they couldn’t celebrate.
As it turned out, the unexpected pre-season losses of tackle Cole Mosier and wide receivers Dorian Baker and Jeff Badet, plus the early departure of Boom Williams, had all but neutered last year's big-play attack. And a slow start by Benny Snell turned the UK offense into a real grinder.
With the exception of the Vanderbilt game, the Wildcats seemed in danger of losing late in just about every game they won. The season-opener at Southern Miss was expected to be a battle, and it was. But then came the home opener against FCS opponent Eastern Kentucky, which led the Cats at halftime.
Conference victories over South Carolina and Missouri in hindsight, were more impressive than they seemed even on game day but they came down to the closing minutes. In victory, UK fans felt more relief than joy.
Sure, the Wildcats beat a Tennessee team in a game that likely sealed the doom of the Volunteers’ embattled coach. But that had been preceded by an old-fashioned butt-kicking at Mississippi State. AND the Vols were in it until the last few ticks when really, it should have been a two-TD contest.
Do we really need to discuss Florida? Or Ole Miss? Talk about ammunition for anger. This should have been the season Kentucky beat BOTH the Gators and Tennessee for the first time since 1977.
Given the way the Wildcats lost to the Rebels, it was impressive how they bounced back the following week against Vandy. It provided some rare, feel-good moments for fans who knew what lay ahead – back-to-back games with Georgia and Louisville.
The combination of those two blowouts would have made for a convenient excuse for UK fans to stay away from the bowl trip and yet, they showed up. The players noticed.
“Our team needed that,” Mark Stoops said later. “They felt it.”
And they used “it” to help them reach down, deep down, after they’d fallen behind two scores; after they had seen their best player dismissed for good by an official who’d had his feelings hurt; after they had watched their gritty quarterback go down twice but bounce back the same number of times.
And now, here he was, with 37 seconds left, his team down 24-17, scrambling for the end zone, hurtling toward the front-corner pylon. Touchdown, Kentucky… and the same fans who had spent much of the year mad AT their team now were mad FOR it, with just a two-point conversion standing between the Wildcats and an eight-win season.
Bowl games are exhibitions. They mean nothing in the standings, unless of course they’re part of the FBS playoff system. They’re rewards for players, coaches and fans – a chance to play and watch football one more time; to pull on the uniform, show the colors, fly the flag.
And for this Kentucky team, it was a chance to give the fans one more opportunity to scatter into the cold, Nashville night, warming themselves with the memory of a comeback that had seemed impossible just about an hour ago.
Johnson’s pass was about six inches too high, the season essentially ending with that play. Seven wins – a pipe dream just a few seasons back, now a measure of disappointment – but also, progress, viewed through the prism of the Big Picture.
“I’m proud,” Stoops said. “These guys put a lot of work in, to get ourselves to the point where you’re talking about being disappointed with seven and knowing that you had the opportunity to win eight, nine, 10. And that’s not always been the case.”
He’s right about that. Even thinking of double-digit wins seemed a laughable waste of time not so long ago. But 14 wins over the past two seasons plus an upgrade in talent have helped the Cats rise in the SEC – not to mention, a rise in fan expectations.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve been pushing to gain on teams, one at a time, in the SEC,” Stoops said on his post-game radio show. “We’re climbing that ladder. We’re working our way up.
“We realize nobody in this league wants to step back. Everybody works and competes to get better, as do we.”
Fans spent much of the season angry, and disappointed – none more so than the guy in the big chair. But he found more joy in the victories and appreciated the effort he saw in his players.
“I’m very proud of them because of the work they‘ve done to put us in a position to win those games,” he said. “Now, we’ve gotta win ‘em. We’ve gotta find a way and we will.”
The Northwestern loss went a ways in bringing fans closer to a team that had left them puzzled and infuriated at varying times this season. But in the end, they appreciated the effort. Their team had played with a fire that sometimes seemed missing earlier in the year.
They’re going to want more – a lot more – in 2018.