By Denis House
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
If there’s a new football coach at Kentucky next season, you can thank the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and their 32-31 shocker over the Wildcats Saturday.
As for Kentucky not having an elite football program, well, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
First off, let’s remember where Kentucky plays football: The Southeastern Conference. The elite football conference in the nation. Hands down, no question about it. Look at the most recent AP Top 25 poll: 1. Alabama. 2. LSU. 5. Georgia. 7. South Carolina. 14. Florida. 23. Mississippi. And until this past weekend, Tennessee and Arkansas were also ranked. So that meant at one time this season eight of the conference’s 14 teams were ranked.
And even some of those teams that weren’t ranked aren’t pushovers: Auburn, Texas A & M and Missouri can go toe-to-toe with most teams in the nation. Add to that the fact that the last six national champions were from the SEC.
Yes, playing in the SEC is brutal. And that makes recruiting top players to come to Kentucky almost impossible. The best are going to go to the best.
So if you can’t get the best players, you aren’t going to compete in the SEC. And since Kentucky isn’t going to leave the conference to play football somewhere else (which really wouldn’t be a bad idea), fans will just have to deal with the fact that the Wildcats are now and probably will be a lower-tier SEC team.
What about Joker Phillips? It’s easy to blame the head coach, and yes, Joker deserves some criticism. There are some coaches who are just better suited to be assistant coaches. I think Joker might be one of those. That’s not a knock on him. It’s just that way sometimes.
A big part of the blame rests on the shoulders of both the university and the fans. For years, six wins and a trip to a bowl game were just fine, as a full Commonwealth Stadium was testament to. And as long as the fans continued to pour into Commonwealth, the university really saw no reason to change. The program was bringing in huge amounts of money, but not a lot of quality wins.
Still, the fans made the pilgrimage to whichever city played host to the bowl the Wildcats were playing in. The bowl committees loved having Kentucky because they knew that UK had a strong fan base that would help fill the stadium and spend lots of money in the host city.
There were several times over the past 20 years that Kentucky was looking for a new head coach, but the university never saw fit to go after any of the “big” names who were available. Instead, we got the likes of Hal Mumme, Guy Morriss and Rich Brooks. Each had similar success at UK, but the Wildcats were never in the national title hunt.
But if you really want to get to, as Don Henley sang, the heart of the matter, you have to go all the way back to 1953. That was the last year that the legendary Bear Bryant coached UK. He was there from 1946-1953 and complied a record of 60-23-5 for a winning percentage of .710. No coach since then even approaches that winning percentage. He was the AP SEC Coach of the Year in 1950. Under Bryant, UK made its first bowl appearance (1947) and won its first SEC title (1950). That 1950 team defeated No. 1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and finished ranked No. 7. He led the Wildcats to appearances in the Great Lakes Bowl, Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl Classic. From 1949 through 1953 his teams all finished ranked in the Top 20. Bryant would later go to Alabama and build the Crimson Tide into a powerhouse.
So why didn’t UK hang onto the Bear?
You see, Rupp basically told Bryant that basketball is, and always will be, king at Kentucky. And Bryant knew it was true, so he moved on when the opportunity presented its.
So today basketball is still king at Kentucky, while football languishes near the bottom of the SEC ladder. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. Several universities have strong programs in both sports.
Until the fans and the university realize that, I fear that UK football will stay exactly where it is at: The third best FBS team in a state that has only three FBS teams.