How Rich Brooks ended the basketball monopoly at Kentucky
Kentucky's identity has long been defined by the three staples engrained into the DNA of every son and daughter of the Bluegrass State: basketball, bourbon and horse racing. It's only natural that Maker's Mark, purveyor of the state's trademark libation, has produced limited edition bottles honoring hoops luminaries
So when Kentucky football coach
Few could have imagined Brooks attaining that level of notoriety during his first three seasons with the Wildcats, when the losses piled up and "Ditch Mitch and Rich" bumper stickers and T-shirts flooded Lexington.
To Brooks, the pleas to can him and
Brooks is also used to winning over those naysayers. At Oregon, Brooks laid the foundation for the Ducks' rise to national prominence. At Kentucky, he's altered the perception of Wildcats football, inside and out. Despite inheriting a program on probation and with just 68 scholarship players on its roster, he's become the first coach in Kentucky history to win three straight bowl games.
"I have people come up to me and tell me 'Coach, I got to apologize, I was one of those people that didn't believe you were the right guy for the job and I was wrong,'" said Brooks, who takes a little pride in the fact that those who were begging the school to "Ditch Rich" have changed their tune.
Brooks doesn't want too much credit for reviving the program, though. "I've got a great coaching staff and we've recruited better players," he said. "It's pretty simple." But if turning around Kentucky were so straightforward, it's hard to understand why
Truth be told, there was
Those in Lexington have long upheld Murphy's Law, knowing that on Saturdays, anything that can go wrong inevitably will. In the four years before Brooks' arrival, the Wildcats had lost 10 of their last 13 games decided by eight points or less, including their last nine in SEC play.
In 2006, three-and-a-half seasons into Brooks' tenure, it seemed impossible to change that philosophy. The Wildcats limped home from Baton Rouge following a 49-0 drubbing at LSU and the clamor to "Ditch Rich" had grown into a holler heard from Covington to Middlesborough, Hickman to Paw Paw. Brooks truly believed his days were numbered. "We had a bye week and we were going to play Mississippi State and I felt if I didn't win the next game that I might not be coaching the rest of the season," he said. "The pressure, the scrutiny, the fan base. The administration was getting hammered. It was pretty shaky ... very shaky."
So Brooks did what he seems hard-wired to do; he simplified things. He focused on fundamentals. He preached blocking and tackling. He spoke of the players' legacy at Kentucky. Fourteen days after the debacle in Death Valley, the Wildcats survived Mississippi State 34-31 on the road. A week later they notched a 24-20 win over Georgia that led UK fans to tear down the goalposts in Commonwealth Stadium.
"In 21 days they went from the low point of the Rich Brooks era to probably the high point," said Leach.
The Wildcats ended the year 8-5, earning their first bowl berth since 1999 and beating Clemson in the Music City Bowl. They followed that effort with another 8-5 campaign in 2007, which included an era-defining triple-overtime win over LSU and another Music City Bowl victory, this time over Florida State. Last season, Brooks guided Kentucky to the Liberty Bowl vs. East Carolina and became the first coach to lead UK to three straight bowl games since
As Kentucky's fortunes have changed, so too has the program's mindset. But obstacles remain. In 2009, the Wildcats face a daunting schedule that includes matchups with Alabama (which Kentucky has beaten just once in the last 34 meetings), Auburn (which it hasn't beaten since 1966), Florida (which it hasn't beaten since 1986), South Carolina (which it hasn't beaten since '99) and Tennessee (which it hasn't beaten since 1984). But Brooks welcomes the challenge. "Those are things that we need to overcome if we want to make a serious climb up the SEC ladder," Brooks said.
The Wildcats have the potential to be better than last year's unit, which ranked 106th in total offense but returns eight starters, including sophomore quarterback
In addition to continuing the unprecedented and unexpected run Brooks has pieced together, this season could test if Kentucky has finally become more than just a basketball school, or if Brooks' program has simply filled the void for disgruntled basketball fans for the past three seasons.
Kentucky football's ascension came during a surreal time for the state's biggest non-denominational following: The Church of Rupp. UK football doesn't draw
Ultimately, that's also the most important thing to Brooks, who believes in leaving things better than he found them. It took Brooks 12 years to lead Oregon to a bowl game, but then he did so in four of his last six years. When he left town,
"To me that's what it's about," Brooks said. "It's about building something up from what was missing."
To hear Brooks tell it, that's not so difficult.