November 3, 2012, Commonwealth Stadium was a depressing place to be. Where only 3 short years before, the Wildcats were preparing for yet another bowl game, this SEC match up with Vanderbilt showed how very far the Cats had fallen. While not yet among the elite of the SEC, the Rich Brooks era did provide Kentucky fans with some very competitive teams and consecutive post-season appearances. It was a very nice consistent stretch of football for one of the perennial league doormats. How Joker Phillips had managed to drag the program down so far in so short a period of time was mind-boggling. It appeared the Wildcat Faithful had finally reached their breaking point in supporting the football Cats.
Who could blame the fans for losing faith? The Kentucky Football program has enjoyed very limited success since the departure of Fran Curci in 1981. Bill Curry, arguably one of the nicest guys you could ever have on the sidelines, just never could get things rolling and the Fellowship of the Miserable was born. Cat fans showed up at Commonwealth, week after week only to see their Cats manhandled by just about every SEC opponent. The arrival of Hal Mumme in 1998 breathed life back into the program, though. Mumme was able to post a 7-5 record that year, the first winning season by the Cats since 1984 when Jerry Claiborne coached the Cats.
Mumme’s success was not to be sustained, however and he limped out of Kentucky with a 2-9 record his final season. Guy Morriss stepped in and promptly recorded a 7-5 record his first season and Cat fans again got their hopes up, only to be let down again when Morriss opted to leave for a school that was more invested in their football program. At this point, a somewhat controversial choice was made for UK’s next football coach: Rich Brooks. Sure, he had an NFL background, but wasn’t he too far advanced in age to rebuild this seemingly cursed program?
Of course, we know Brooks did just that after struggling the first couple of years. From 2006 through 2009, the Wildcats posted 4 consecutive winning seasons along with consecutive bowl appearances. Commonwealth was routinely filled, week after week. The Fellowship of the Miserable was no more. There was genuine excitement each week with the hope that the Cats actually could win against SEC opponents. And so it was with little concern that Brooks’ endorsement of Joker Phillips was received by the Big Blue Nation. After all, Joker had been a part of Brooks’ staff, so it made sense. It seemed likely he could at the very least sustain the level of play Brooks had built and possibly improve upon it.
The fans’ confidence, however, quickly evaporated as it became apparently Joker was not going to make things better; quite the contrary. In three short seasons, Phillips systematically dismantled a once hard-working, enthusiastic team of talented players and left the Cats with a cupboard that was nearly bare when he was finally relieved of his duties, effective the end of the 2012 season. Mitch Barnhart had a Herculean task ahead of him and recapturing the BBN’s enthusiasm for football was at the top of his list.
So it was that Barnhart then took a roll of the dice and hired Mark Stoops to take over the reins. To say he hit the ground running would be a massive understatement. It was obvious Stoops was determined to bring the best talent to Kentucky that he could find. With the signing of Drew Barker, it suddenly became acceptable for recruits to consider the Cats. With a massive marketing effort and a tireless staff working the recruiting trail, the commitments started coming in droves. Boom Williams, TV Williams, Snodgrass, Baker, Bone, Hendrix, Horton, Elam and more all decided “Why Not?” and signed with the Cats. With each new success, the coaching staff began tweeting #YAHTZEE, something that trended nationally repeatedly last spring.
So in the very stadium where only 6 months prior there were barely 25,000 in attendance, the BBN turned out in record numbers for Stoops’ inaugural Spring Blue-White game with over 50,000 fans at Commonwealth Stadium. And the fans’ devotion remained constant even though the results of the 2013 season were no better than 2012, assuming you only consider the W-L record. What we did see different was players who were making the extra effort. We saw a staff that coached players the entire game. Mediocrity was no longer acceptable. If you didn’t want to work hard and do what Coach Stoops said, you could sit on the bench or you could leave the program. What you could not do, however, was remain on the field. A new era had definitely arrived.
So it was that the spring of 2014 arrived and with it the Spring Game to introduce the BBN to the highest ranked recruiting class in the internet era for the Kentucky Wildcats. Again, a huge crowd (35,000 +) was there to welcome the Cats. Ongoing renovations to Commonwealth Stadium may have limited attendance, but enthusiasm was at an all-time high. We saw a huge leap in the level of on-field talent. Players were faster, tackles more solid, and overall execution crisper. And the cries of #YAHTZEE are still coming in as more 4-star recruits are answering Kentucky’s offers with “Why not?”
While it may seem to border on lunacy to give a contract extension to a coach who had a 2-10 opening season, I think Barnhart made a good move by rolling the dice. We have a coach who can attract big talent. We have a staff that has incredible contacts in recruiting circles. We have the fans once again filling Commonwealth Stadium. And once again, we have hope. As far as gambles go, choosing Mark Stoops as the man to finally bring Kentucky Football to the top of the mountain seems like a pretty safe bet.