From Just One of the Guys on the Beat: Thanks, Coach

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When Joker Phillips grabs the reins of the UK football program, he will become the seventh head coach I will have covered as a member of the media who work the beat. In some capacity or another, I go back to the early days of the Fran Curci era.

Covering the guy who’s been in charge over the past seven seasons has by FAR been the most enjoyable time I’ve spent working Kentucky football. And to think, when he first took over, I thought dealing with Rich Brooks might be the toughest.

As I’ve mentioned here before, Curci was a challenge. He was the guy who objected to a story I broke by informing my boss that if I showed up at another one of his practices, he’d have campus police take me away (presumably in handcuffs; leg irons are not standard issue with UKPD). We worked it out, but it was unpleasant, to say the least.

He was a quotable guy, and (some of) his teams won. I broadcast UK home football games for three seasons on WBKY-FM (now WUKY) and in 1976, the Cats finished 7-4 and won their way to the Peach Bowl. The 1977 squad was 10-1 but stayed home because of sanctions stemming from NCAA rules violations.

That was the stain on the Curci era. One day I would be checking the police blotter or talking to an NCAA spokesperson, the next, I was covering a practice or calling a game.

His successor was Jerry Claiborne, whose first team struggled to an 0-10-1 mark. His next two received bids to the Hall of Fame Bowl, winning it in 1984 (also the last season the Cats beat Tennessee.) Trouble was, those two bowl seasons found me in Dallas, Texas, working for the old Southwest Conference radio network. I missed all the fun.

When I returned to Lexington, I covered a UK team that won five or six games each season, but never could improve beyond that.

Claiborne was, much like Brooks, professional with the media, but very guarded. And not colorful at all.

Next came Bill Curry – a former sportscaster himself who would look you in the eye when he spoke to you, was fair and honest. But he couldn’t get out of his own way. By the time Curry settled on an offensive philosophy and a sound recruiting strategy, it was too late.

But he was one of the finest people with whom I’ve worked, and a pretty good sound bite. Plus, having worked in the media as a sportscaster in Atlanta, he at least had a feel for those of us on the job.

I couldn’t say much of the same about the guy who followed him – Hal Mumme.

From the day he arrived, Mumme made sure those of us who worked the beat knew two things: He didn’t like dealing with us, and he wasn’t going to be very cooperative.

Each Monday, then as now, we would gather in the Wildcat Den to discuss the game from the previous Saturday, as well as Kentucky’s upcoming opponent. Then, as now, we would get a free lunch prior to the Q&A session. At times, Mumme would actually sit and eat with us, but he always made sure we knew how much he dreaded going to the podium and listening to our silly questions.

What was saddest of all was the fact that he had the wherewithal to be good at it. He could be charming, glib and funny, but instead oftentimes chose to be dismissive and condescending, forgetting one key fact: We weren’t there just because we wanted to talk football with the almighty coach of the Wildcats. We were there to convey whatever message he had to the Big Blue Nation – the paying customers who made his job possible.

He snubbed hundreds of thousands of UK fans many times when I would approach him, in my role as UK radio network sideline reporter, as he left the field at halftime (“Get away from me!” he snarled once, after two particularly disastrous quarters at Ole Miss).

And, of course, I had to play crime reporter again when his program ran afoul of NCAA laws.

Guy Morriss was a relief. The interim-turned-head coach seemed determined to be the anti-Hal (pleasant, open, cooperative), even throughout his first season, when the Wildcats finished 2-9.

I’m not sure if he knew how his former boss occasionally had treated me at halftime, but the first time I approached him for an interview at intermission, Morriss draped his arm on my shoulders as we walked off the field and patiently answered my questions (his team, by the way, was getting drilled at the time by Louisville).

The moment Tom Leach pitched the next commercial break, producer Mike Dodson exclaimed, “Could you feel the LOVE?” as the rest of the guys in our booth burst into laughter.

I hated to see Morriss leave, and I wasn’t sure what to make of the new guy. I knew his work; I was a fan of Brooks’ Oregon teams, especially the one that made it to the 1994 Rose Bowl. It was hard not to notice the green and gold uniforms, and the Ducks also played an entertaining brand of football.

But it took a while to get a read on Brooks (and, to be fair, he had a tougher job getting a read on all of us). The first thing we realized was that if we asked him direct question, the odds were, we’d get a straight answer – unvarnished. And, sometimes, people didn’t like that.

Q.: “Why does your team stink?”
A.: “We don’t have as many talented players as the other guys.”

This infuriated a lot of college football fans in Kentucky, who believe a good coach can fix just about anything. And while that actual exchange never occurred, it did happen, constantly, in various forms during those first three seasons under Brooks.

He was, of course, correct. NCAA sanctions had done their job; they had crippled the program found guilty of cheating under previous management. Fans (and some media members) were annoyed by Brooks’ numerous mentions of the lack of scholarship players. I, too, grew tired of it until I realized – he only brings it up when we ask about it. Stop asking, and he’ll stop talking about it. Duh.

Of course, that didn’t stop a lot of people who kept trying to come up with different ways to inquire about wins, losses, progress, the future, etc. It always came back (then, as well as now) to talent. If you don’t have good players, and a lot of them, you’re not going to win in the Southeastern Conference.

Eventually, Brooks not only righted the ship, he took it on a thrill ride that included four straight bowl games.

I had covered only three during my entire career: 1993 Peach, 1998 Outback and 1999 Music City. As a starving college student, I couldn’t afford gas money to go to the Peach in ’76 (just as well – I know people who still haven’t thawed out from that one). And, as I mentioned earlier, I was working in Texas when the Cats went bowling under Claiborne.

I was beginning to wonder if I would ever cover another bowl game. Rich Brooks took care of that and, throughout it all, was an absolute professional when it came to working with the media. Of course, he had his moments with some guys on the beat, but if he ever failed to work it out with them, I never heard about it.

I produced his TV show for the past seven seasons. It didn’t involve much from him; the occasional sit-down interview, and a weekly on-camera session following Thursday’s practice with one of his players.

Each show is hosted by a different football Wildcat. That player would open the show with a greeting, and then a question for his head coach. More often than not, the producer (me) would have to help with a suggestion. Some of the strongest, toughest, biggest smack-talkers would become intimidated, for some reason, in his presence – and they would admit it. Often, this prompted a sly smile from the coach.

When the opening segment was completed, the player would often heave a deep sigh of relief, pick up his helmet and turn to leave. That’s when the coach would grab the player’s arm and inform him that he’s not quite done yet. Brooks would then take the mic, and interview HIM.

Knowing he was about to be grilled by the Top Cat would sometimes make the player nervous all over again, but Brooks ALWAYS preceded his questions by telling the player how proud he was of the way the young man was performing. Sometimes he would tease defensive backs about coming up with more interceptions, reminding that Brooks, during his senior season at Oregon State, picked off five.

And the final question, without fail, was this: Tell the fans what you’re going to do with your education, once football is over for you.

I never got tired of hearing that, because I knew Brooks cared deeply about the answer.

I will miss asking questions of, and getting answers from, Rich Brooks – the man who enabled me to cover four bowl games, without ever having to cover another NCAA investigation.

For that I say, Thanks, Coach. I hope the fish are always biting for you, from now on.

(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 21-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.)

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