Dicky Lyons, Jr., said it best after the game – and if you heard him, you knew he was right.
“The old Kentucky would have lost this game.”
The senior wide receiver said it to me on the radio, during the “Wildcat Wrapup” portion of our radio broadcast. Then he walked down the hall and said it again to the assembled media in the Wildcat Den, who were waiting to hear from him and his teammates on UK’s heart-stopping 20-14 victory over Middle Tennessee State.
Lyons, who registered a careere-high 12 catches vs. MTSU, had stated the obvious. In fact, I reminded him that it DID happen, that the “old Kentucky” already had lost this game – to LSU back in 2002. That night, Young master Richard Lyons sat with his father, former Wildcat great Dicky, at their home in LaPlace, Louisiana, watching the Tigers pull off the “Bluegrass Miracle.” They were as dumbfounded as the rest of the Big Blue Nation.
That’s why Saturday’s frantic finish had the sickening feeling that it did. We were all well past, “Can you believe this?” because we already knew the impossible was possible. Trouble is, within the annals of UK football, it was not only possible, it was likely.
With a few notable seasons excepted, Kentucky football is littered with losses that should have been wins. The ’02 loss to LSU may be the worst, but it has company. This internet site you’re reading is basically a bottomless pit when it comes to space, but I’m pretty sure I could fill it up with stories of last-second setbacks.
Our friend Jeff Gilstrap, the late comedy club owner-turned sports commentator, had a brilliant idea a few years ago: He wanted to stage his own exorcism and cast out the demons that have plagued UK football for so long. He intended to build a bonfire in the UK parking lot and then ceremonially throw in symbols of losses through the years.
We all sat around brainstorming one day about how best to represent the loss in New Orleans, when UK was called on successive plays for pass interference in the closing seconds, coughing up a bitter loss to Tulane.
The upset of Alabama engineered by Tim Couch and Craig Yeast was fun, but it shouldn’t have taken so long to happen. During the Jerry Claiborne era, Bill Curry’s Crimson Tide staged a last-second comeback in Commonwealth Stadium.
On a couple of occasions within the last 15 years, the Florida Gators have escaped Lexington with last-minute victories. Claiborne’s Wildcats saw a game-winning drive die short of the goal-line in Athens, Georgia, one afternoon. Vanderbilt beat UK five straight times, for crying out loud.
There have been too many Tennessee games to mention, the most painful coming just last year. Jeff would’ve hated that with every ounce of his massive frame.
His bonfire idea had to be scuttled; too many liability issues. Instead, what seems to have replaced it is talent. Ultimately, you knew it had to be that way.
The Wildcats now have better players, and more of them. Lyons is one of their best this season. Against Middle, he turned in another spectacular, one-handed grab, which helped set up UK’s second touchdown. It was a reception overshadowed only by his diving, sliding, acrobatic, one-handed catch for a score at Mississippi State two years ago.
That catch in Starkville helped turn that game around, which in turn, helped turn that season around and send the Wildcats to their first bowl victory under Rich Brooks. It had been preceded by an open date, something the Cats needed following a 49-0 shellacking at LSU. It’s been a different team ever since.
Now Kentucky has another open date, and Brooks and his staff will spend much of it re-evaluating talent, perhaps making position changes and helping their players dedicate themselves anew. But the difference is, they’re 3-0 with a chance to hang up one more non-conference win before they begin SEC play.
Until (and unless) UK wins another Southeastern Conference championship (heck, maybe more than one), you could never say for certain that the “New Kentucky” has taken up permanent residence in Lexington.
But as long as the Cats keep pulling out victories in games that perhaps they shouldn’t have won, finding ways to win instead of inventing ways to lose, one thing you CAN say with authority is that when it comes to football, this is no longer the “Old Kentucky” home.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m.ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)