If you’re like me, and thousands of other Kentucky football faithful, the days ( yes days, plural ) preceding the beginning of the Kentucky football season is like Christmas Eve. Many like myself, get a certain gleam in the eye around the first week in August. By then, most news concerning the Wildcats concerns football, and not UK hoops. It warms my heart to peruse the pages of the newspaper, getting myself up to date with goings on of our favorite gridiron crew. Instead of lollipops and candy canes dancing in my head, it’s the atmosphere at Commonwealth, the parking lot for the tailgating ritual, the smell of the freshly mowed grass on the field and yes, the smell of brats, burgers and pretzels covered in mustard and cheese; the sound of the band, the cheerleaders, and the immense microcosm of fans in attendance on game day. Television, with its plethora of sports network’s offer up a veritable buffet of college football. By this time, I’m there: in full college football mode.
With this comes the inevitable prognostications concerning the Cats’ chances this year. Everyone from the national sports outlets to the local and statewide ones, lay down their predictions concerning Kentucky’s chances, especially in the brutal Southeastern Conference. That schedule makes or breaks the Cats’ chances for postseason glory as we all know.
As everyone knows, Mark Stoops and company have laid down the gauntlet and are determined to bring the Cats to postseason play. Many are saying (and have been for some time ) that this is THE big test for Stoops. He’s in his fourth season in Lexington, and has in this fan’s opinion done an admirable job in rebuilding the Wildcat football program. I often remind myself when I become frustrated watching the Cats on plays where nothing is gained, that it took Rich Brooks and his DECADES of experience at least four years to bring the program back to where it needed to be. Unfortunately, all of his hard work was undone in the following years.
Enter Mark Stoops. We have in Coach Stoops a great opportunity. It has taken Stoops, as any coach who inherits a losing program ( at one time an offense that was ranked 119 out of 120 Division I programs) the four years he’s been here to recruit and build his own team made up of HIS recruits and HIS players.
He has done a magnificent job of recruiting since he’s been here, especially in the immensely fertile recruiting ground in Ohio, a traditional and legendary football state. It’s areas like this where Stoops is familiar and he knows his way around much like Daniel Boone traversing the Cumberland Gap. With this tool at his disposal, I truly believe Stoops will turn the program around. Also with the hiring of Stoops, along with his philosophy, Mitch Barnhart and the Kentucky athletic hierarchy finally realized that fans in Kentucky do indeed desire and crave a winning football program and he finally understood their frustration. With the dismal seasons under Joker Phillips, Barnhart and company also remembered that Football pays the bills. With dwindling attendance, he saw the light and Stoops came north from Tallahassee.
One only has to look eighty miles west, down the road in Louisville to see that it IS indeed possible to build a regularly successful, powerful and nationally ranked football program in a traditional basketball state like the Commonwealth. Stoops hails from the football coaching mecca of Youngstown, Ohio. He, his father and brothers are all successful in their own right and I believe young brother Mark will prevail here. The level of football expertise possessed by Stoops means a lot. And he knows how to utilize it.
That sixth win has eluded Stoops and it’s the magic number he needs. He has a tough schedule again this year, one he’ll always have being in the battleground of the SEC. He has a big challenge. It’s quite twofold. Kentucky possesses the longest Division I losing streak in the nation to the same program, namely Florida. Kentucky has only defeated the Volunteers from Tennessee once since 1984. Throw in the pressure to advance to postseason play, Stoops’ plate is full. With away games in Knoxville, Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, and Louisville, it’s going to be tough. He also has to face Missouri on the road and a tough game at home against Kirby Smart and his bulldog den when they roll into Commonwealth in October. Vandy is also not a pushover, and it’s a good thing that they take on the Cats in Lexington.
In order to achieve the success we all desire, Stoops doesn’t only need the support of his bosses in Lexington, the alumni, the donors etc., but he needs the undying support of the fan base. He has the support of the aforementioned now, as well as his players and staff, but without fan support, he can’t succeed. I think he indeed has the fan support and it’s the most excitement I’ve seen for Kentucky football in a long time (despite the lower ticket sales which has nothing to do with Stoops and can be the subject of another column) and I truly believe Stoops will achieve his sixth win this year. How he does it remains to be seen. One or two upsets would go far toward his goal. However, the Cats may come out storming and let the football world know that Kentucky is for real. It happened in Louisville. Why not here? Stoops is just the guy to pull something like that off.
With that said, Stoops gets it and he understands. He understands that he was brought here to not only fix a huge problem, but to build a program and tradition that will last for years. We as fans, need to have faith and give him time. I truly believe that we, as Kentucky football diehards will indeed have something to smile about after the last click of the clock of the regular season at Papa John’s in November.
So from one Kentucky Football nut to all of the others, have a little faith. Dr. Stoops is in the house and carrying in his bag the fixes needed to remedy Kentucky’s Pigskin program’s long-standing ills. This is the season it will happen. I feel it..
Until then, when I retire tonight to bed, as I will tomorrow night, I’ll be dreaming of the purple lot by day with smoked chickens, brats and burgers and by night those same previously mentioned long awaited treasures of fresh mowed grass on the field, the smell of stadium fare, the sounds of the band and the cheerleaders and the scoreboard showing Kentucky’s first victory over the boys from Southern Miss this Saturday. Yep I do believe. We all have to.
Yes it’s MY Christmas Eve, sans the candy canes and lollipops, and I can’t wait until Saturday…a Kentucky football nuts Christmas in September. See you there.