By Dick Gabriel
Big Blue Sports Network
Five years ago, the fortunes of Kentucky football couldn’t have been any bleaker. The corner-cutting by Claude Bassett and resulting NCAA sanctions had left the program looking like a cornfield after a locust festival. A team that had been mediocre for decades couldn’t even get cheating right and now, it had hit rock bottom.
Rich Brooks was in trouble.
He had a plan, but the howling had reached such a pitch that Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart felt compelled to speak publicly about Brooks’ future with the program. Barnhart said Brooks and his staff would be evaluated at the end of the season, just like all coaches. But it was Barnhart’s tone that indicated there might be a new staff in place by the following season.
By now you know Barnhart decided to keep Brooks, and you know what’s happened since then. Brooks, obviously, knows better than anyone. What he doesn’t know is why these aren’t happier times in the Big Blue Nation.
The Wildcats were 36 hours removed from an incredible comeback win over Arkansas when he spoke at his weekly Monday news conference of the fact that the Wildcats have won five of seven games so far, but that’s not good enough, not for him. And there’s no way of telling if it was a season-turning victory.
“In past years a lot of people would have thought that would be pretty good for Kentucky football, but that’s no longer true,” Brooks said. “We’ve lost two that we had a chance to win. Now, any game moving forward, if you lost another one, your margin of error gets closer to not being accomplished, for what your goals are. Each week becomes important when you slip up on one or two. The next game takes on more significance.”
Not good enough. The Wildcats could have been bowl-eligible seven weeks into the season and they aren’t, but that’s not good enough. It’s testimony to how far this program has come, and how fast.
But some Kentucky fans are faster. They believe their team should be unbeaten and contending for a Southeastern Conference title and, almost by default, a national championship. And they weigh in occasionally via the sports talk radio shows in central Kentucky. A lot of them, God love ya, on “Sports Nightly,” on WLAP.
Rich Brooks is listening.
Brooks is the first and, to now, the only coach in UK history to openly admit he’s a frequent listener to call-in shows. “I just kind of like to know what people are thinking, and saying, and talking about,” he said. And what bothers him most are the complaints – the “negativity,” as he calls it. And he lumped us, the media, with the complainers.
NOTE: The quotes you’re about to read were delivered Monday by a smiling coach, a guy interested in engaging a room full of reporters in a discussion. Not a ranting, whining, complaining coach.
“Does the media promote it, or do you react to what the fans are doing?” he asked. “I’m just curious. Is it a reaction to the people who call in because, from what I get, and all you know I listen to those things in my car, that’s no secret, when I listen it’s usually people who weren’t at the game. But they heard it on the radio, or saw it on TV, or, ‘My friend called me and told me…’
“Are you reporting it because those people call in and complain about it? What I’m asking is, Do we continue to promote the glass half empty?”
If by “we” he means message board-posters and talk show-callers who have been demanding Brooks’ head on a pike over a sputtering offense, I’ll take exception to being declared guilty by association. But I do agree with some of the things he said on Monday.
“I find Kentucky football an interesting phenomenon,” he said. “What our team has been trying to do is change the culture of Kentucky football and I think we’ve done that. But some people don’t get it.
“I’m thrilled that we’re sitting here picking at every little thing on our team and we’re five and two. Four years ago people would have been shooting off fireworks at five and two but not now. And I don’t have a problem with that. But there’s a difference between having a problem with it and just being negative to be negative.”
Again, a reminder: He said it all with a smile on his face. It was not whining, it was not a rant. His tone was one more of wonderment or bemusement than anger.
Brooks said he’s interested by the perception of Kentucky football. “What’s the Bluegrass Miracle?” he asked.
I t is, of course, and always will be, LSU’s stunning, Hail Mary victory over the Wildcats in 2002.
“Now,” Brooks said, “you would think that the Arkansas game might be better termed the ‘Bluegrass Miracle’ on the positive side. So our Bluegrass Miracle is a negative thing on Kentucky football. I find that very interesting.” (Note – it was dubbed “Bluegrass Miracle” by LSU fans, as an answer to the “Mardi Gras Miracle” performed by the basketball Wildcats, after their 31-point comeback win over the Tigers in 1994).
Brooks went on, “I find it interesting that you get more phone calls after a loss on call-in shows than you do after a win. I call that negativity.”
I call it passion. There’s a feeling of contentment that follows a victory that doesn’t often stir one to pick up the phone, or bang out an e-mail. Losses bring out the fangs, and Brooks, a coaching lifer, understands that better than anyone.
“People get disappointed,” he said. “They invest their emotions in a product, in a team, and they don’t want to get disappointed. And when they get disappointed, they get mad.”
And when they get mad, they pick up the phone – some, quicker than others, with little regard to logic or common sense. But fans foot the bills, and make shows like “Sports Nightly” not only possible, but necessary.
And one of our regular listeners, apparently, is Rich from Lexington.
Said the man who spent part of his summer vacation surviving a minor boating mshap in Oregon, “I’m just trying to figure out the waters I have to wade through. Or swim through. Or get a life raft.”
(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.)