Across the board, every Kentucky player, coach and fan thinks Saturday’s performance against Florida was unacceptable, especially early on. The Cats came out flat, played without intelligence and looked scared for the entire opening quarter of a game that was blessed (or cursed) with a national television audience. However in the normal post-game hand-wringing, another theme emerged beyond the bad play itself. Specifically, some fans have a completely unreasonable expectation of what Kentucky football should be. In the conversations at the tailgates, on the message boards and over the call-in shows, many fans openly wondered whether Rich Brooks/Joker Phillips could take Kentucky to the “next level” and whether these coaches would ever be “SEC caliber.” Forgetting the last three years, some even went so far as to wonder if change was necessary and spoke as to the embarrassment of being so far behind the top of the SEC. Implicit in these arguments was one simple belief…Kentucky can (and should) be a top football program nationally and if they are not there, something is wrong.
This is an argument I have thought a lot about in recent years and I have come to a rather unpopular conclusion. Simply put, Kentucky football cannot be a Top 10 program nationally and fans who use that as the criteria or goal are simply fooling themselves. Because of that belief, I think what Rich Brooks has done at Kentucky is amazing…he has taken the program to what I think is truly the epitome of its potential….winning 6-8 games a year, making a bowl every season and every 5th year or so producing a team that can make some national waves. There are a lot of reasons that go into this formulation, but two without question form the majority of the basis for this conclusion: (1) The State of Kentucky’s recruiting base and (2) playing in the SEC
College football recruiting is the complete opposite of college basketball. In basketball, the location of a program is irrelevant, as the coach, mystique, fan base, history, etc of the program determines success in recruiting. Football is different. Simply put, the best football programs are the teams in the places with the best football talent….period. Unlike in basketball, kids tend to stay close to home MUCH more in football, causing the locale of the program to be a great indicator of success. Whereas 20 years ago, only a few programs were on television every year, now virtually every team has games on national tv and playing at any college can get you the chance to make it to the NFL. Thus players stay close to home and the schools with large talent bases end up being at the top.
Quick, lets name the best programs year in and year out in college football:
What do all those schools have in common? All of them are located in states with HUGE talent bases that produce infinite amounts of players that can play big time Division I football. Want to know why a school like Nebraska or Notre Dame is no longer a national power? You can point to lots of small reasons, but the biggest is simple…they no longer have a monopoly on national coverage and they can no longer recruit the best players in their region. Nebraska loses players to Kansas, Iowa, Kansas State, etc and Notre Dame no longer is the only team to play on national television every week. The result is simple…the loss of prestige to programs that dont reside in places where players grow on trees.
This problem occurs even more profoundly in the SEC. Take a look at this article which ranks NFL players by the state they played high school football on a per capita basis. What do you see? Well four of the top five states on the list (Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Alabama) produce six of the schools in the SEC. Then add to that the fact that two schools in the conference (Florida and Georgia) produce major talent but happen to just have major population bases, and one can see why the deck is stacked for Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Kentucky.
But in all actuality, the situation is probably worse for Kentucky than any other school in the conference. The simple reality is that no state in the SEC produces less Division I talent than Kentucky. On a given year, the state of Kentucky might produce 7-10 guys that really are good enough to play elite Division I football. A couple of those guys end up at Louisville, a couple might get suckered into a Big Ten school and thus Kentucky is only left with 4-6 guys AT MOST that truly are top-level SEC caliber from the state. That means that Joker Phillips and company must go into the home territory of other top programs in the South and Midwest and try to convince players to pick a program that is (a) farther away and (b) usually less successful than their home school. That is virtually impossible. So what they end up doing is looking for the best players the home schools dont take and grabbing them, hoping that some turn into gems. That has worked for the Cats (especially with Joker in Georgia) and can produce very good teams…but it cant produce CONSISTENT national contenders.
The importance of homegrown talent cannot be overstated. Take the best team in recent UK history…the 2007 team. There are many reasons for that team’s success, but one of the biggest is that it was the one year that the state of Kentucky produced NFL talent in one big group. The leaders of that team were Andre’ Woodson, Keenan Burton and Jacob Tamme…all guys that went on to play at the next level. If the state of Kentucky produced those guys every year, teams that could win 9 or 10 games a season could be possible…but it doesnt. Classes like that are rare and special, and unfortunately are nowhere close to the norm. That leaves the Cats severely undermanned in all the key positions.
Some look at the above argument and say, “well what about Boise State, Utah, Cincinnati, Louisville under Petrino, etc”. And there is something to that argument…except for the fact that none of those teams have EVER had to play anything resembling an SEC schedule. When has one of those teams won a game as impressive as a road game at Florida, LSU or Georgia? The answer is never. While Boise can get up for Oklahoma or Utah for Alabama once a year, what if they played the stretch UK has right now? Care to guess what Boise’s record would be if they hosted the Gators, Tide and then went to South Carolina and Auburn? I dont think they would even win 2 of the 4, but that is what Kentucky has to face on a yearly basis.
None of this is to excuse the performance last Saturday or to say that Kentucky should “accept mediocrity.” I want Kentucky to be as great as anyone and think that 100 percent effort should be expected at all times. But I also think that what Brooks has done at Kentucky has been pretty amazing. As Steve Spurrier has shown us at South Carolina, you can take a GREAT old ball coach and put him in the SEC East, recruiting against the best of the best and he may never win over 8 games. Rich Brooks has had a similar three year run to Spurrier, and has done it in a state that produces 25 percent of the talent that is grown in the Palmetto state. That deserves praise, not scorn.
It goes against most of our attitudes of “never say die”, but the facts are the facts. Making Kentucky a Top Fifteen program nationally is not in the cards, not only for Rich Brooks, but likely for anyone. The combination of the lack of Kentucky high school football talent and playing in the SEC almost ensures it. But what CAN happen is that a coach can put together a consistent WINNING program, that goes to bowl games, competes in every game and every 4th or 5th year (when the talent in Kentucky and the out of state gems fall into place) is in the conversation nationally. Rich Brooks and Joker Phillips have come very close to doing that here, and that performance in my view deserves a great deal of praise. Those that cant give such praise probably find their problem less in the team’s performance than in their own expectation levels.