It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
These are odd days for a Kentucky fan. On the one hand, basketball is on the horizon and a season to remember seems quite likely. The John Calipari kickoff luncheon is Wednesday, Media Day is Thursday and Midnight Madness (yes I still call it that) comes on Friday night. As a Kentucky basketball fan, this may be the most optimistic the fanbase has been in over a decade. For the first time since 1996, Kentucky goes into the season believing it can (and will) win the national championship and it seems impossible that the season can be anything but highly successful. The feeling is akin to the one of heightened anticipation that occurs right before an epic night out with your friends in Vegas. You know that no matter what happens, good things are to come. The only question is just how good it is going to be.
Contrast to that football, where it might be the most down the fanbase has ever been in the internet era. It is nearly impossible to find even one Kentucky fan optimistic about the future after what might have been the most embarrassing UK performance since the Curry days. The program has become a national laughingstock, with the second worst offense in the nation and virtually no reason for hope in sight. There exists no magic set of young players that the optimist can cling to in search of rationalization. There is zero confidence in the leadership of the team and supporters seems to fall off by the hour. Players lack confidence, decisions become more baffling by the game and the only consolation is that the whole of the product is so miserable that none individually have to bear to great brunt of the blame. It is a train wreck on nearly every level and it becomes harder and harder to fathom a way that the program can find its way back on track.
Prior to watching the South Carolina beatdown, I went out Friday night and watched the movie made out of my favorite baseball book, “Moneyball.” By now, most of you know the story of Moneyball. A revolution occurred in baseball a few years back in which some egghead statisticians realized that if one approached the game with raw data rather than subjective feel, market discrepancies could be taken advantage of in order to create a superior product. Led by GM Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s rationalized that since they could not compete with the New York Yankees’ payroll (it was 4 times greater than what they could afford), the only way they could compete on the field was by attacking the problem via a different method. In the movie, Brad Pitt (playing Beane) says, “we can’t play their game and win. So we have to play a different game completely and make that difference make up for our weakness.” The A’s realized that their focus on a “different game” (in this case worrying about men on base, rather than simply HRs, RBIs and Batting Average) became their method of survival and prosperity.
I thought about the movie a great deal on Saturday as I watched Kentucky come to the field with its Tecmo Bowl playbook and attempt to run a “pro-style” vanilla offense against another team with superior talent. Yes there was a HB and WR pass (both of which were intercepted), but both seemed like plays done more to respond to short-termed complaints and look “aggressive,” rather than any actual change in team philosophy. Saturday was yet another example that the UK program under Joker Phillips is currently fighting a battle that it simply cannot win. Taking the field against better, more-talented teams, Kentucky is attempting to compete in a game where the odds are so stacked against them that success is virtually impossible. 10 of the 11 other teams in the SEC (and maybe soon Vandy as well) have better talent than Kentucky and all are located in states that produce more college football players than the Bluegrass state. Nearly all have greater financial resources (aka football donors…something UK has in abundance for basketball, but much less prevalent for football) and most are able to recruit talent that Kentucky simply can’t match.
Like the A’s pre-Moneyball, Kentucky is trying to compete against these teams by doing it their way, but with far fewer resources (in this case talent). Joker Phillips is looking at the Alabamas, LSUs and Floridas and saying, “they play a certain style and thus the way to have success is for us to play that style as well.” He seems to believe that Kentucky’s best opportunity to become a powerhouse program is to emulate their method. But he is wrong. Kentucky will never, EVER be able to compete straight-up in the SEC. It simply can’t happen. The structural inequalities of the conference will not let it exist. We don’t have the recruiting base to ever be a national powerhouse and the rigors of the SEC make it impossible for us to even have the occasional glory year that inferior programs like Louisville, UCONN and Cincinnati get to revel in. So long as we ” ‘sposed to be SEC” in a league in which the other powers are SEC, we get nowhere.
Thus Kentucky has to do something else. Kentucky football must find its own “Moneyball” moment or be doomed to another 30 years of failure. The program has to approach everything in a different way. This has to become the fun place to play football, by encouraging an exciting, upbeat, aggressive style that puts UK on the entertainment map. The program has to be seen as innovative and fresh, with an exciting style of play, uniforms, player personality and a coach that gets he is as much a marketer in the early years as he is a coach. Players need to be pushed to the forefront who are part of that personality and those that have the god-given gift to entertain (oh say like Bookie) are made a prominent part of the PR push. Rather than simply be a program that goes out and loses, Kentucky has to be one that goes out and makes excitement happen…by throwing it around, running trick plays, coming up with creative formations and making every game must-see tv. If you are going to lose, do it in style and possibly give incentive to make players come and be a part of turning those losses into wins.
At this point, why would any player come to play for UK over another SEC school? Be honest, besides the great personality of a guy like Tee Martin or the opportunity to maybe get early playing time, what are we selling? We play a BORING style and do it ineffectively. How is that a recipe for success? There has to be a FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE IN PHILOSOPHY on what UK football means both on and off the field. Fun has to be injected at all ends and the monotony of the games and their atmosphere must be completely transformed. How many more ineffective runs up the middle, QB draws, bubble screens and three-yard dump passes can one program see? KENTUCKY CAN’T WIN PLAYING THE OTHER SEC PROGRAMS’s GAME. At our absolute best (2007), we went 7-5. That was our BEST! History says we can’t compete straight up. So we must change the game we are planning.
I hope that Joker Phillips is the person that can make that change. I really do. He is a great man and a good representative of the school. But he also is boring…not as a human (he is actually really entertaining) but as a spokesperson for the program. The UK football program has no flash, no style and no personality. If Joker is going to fix that, it has to start now. He has six weeks to win back the fan base. If the team plays as poorly for the rest of the year, it won’t matter whether he keeps his job at the end of the season. The fans will have abandoned ship. But if he and the program just show fans that they are going to throw the old blueprint out and start anew, maybe some excitement can be generated. If there is anything worse than being terrible, it is being terrible and boring. And Kentucky is both in abundance.
Many believe that the answer to all of our problems rests in the hiring of a “big-name” coach. For the same reasons that I think Kentucky is structurally unable to compete straight-up in the SEC, I think we are unable to hire that coach. Any big-name coach that exists can find a better job than Kentucky. So what UK has to find is a coach that, like the Billy Beane players brought to Oakland in Moneyball, comes with some baggage, but upside. Maybe that baggage is that they are a coordinator who has an unorthodox style that no top program wants to risk installing at its school, but Kentucky can become the testing ground (the new Gus Malzahn). Maybe that baggage is a former coach that failed miserably at a top ten program, but needs a place with more leeway and less expectations to recreate his past magic (Rich Rodriquez). Or maybe it is a name that no one knows, who is the best combination for a program in need (young and hungry) and is going to go against football convention to try something new in Lexington. Big names probably won’t come here, but the right name might.
And maybe Joker is still the right name. I hope he is. But he won’t be if the next six weeks are even in the vicinity of the six just past. Joker Phillips and Mitch Barnhart have to realize just how bad it really is. UK football right now is a unmitigated disaster. The only way it will get better is to fundamentally change what the program means and how it will do business. It won’t happen overnight, but if it doesn’t start happening now, failure is all but certain.
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Bill Keightley Report : Never to be forgotten.
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