As I attempted to process the humiliating beat down the Cats were suffering on Saturday, I looked for the right words to reflect the combination of disgust and resignation that I was feeling. Sitting in a room full of my college friends (in the same spot where I watched last year’s Vanderbilt game…it may just be cursed), it occurred to me that virtually everyone in the room either was or had been a UK Football season ticket holder. As the miserable spectacle lingered on, the conversation shifted to the game next week, the tailgate party that had long ago been planned and what would happen if UK ended up self-combusting to New Mexico State. I looked at this room full dedicated BBN members and ended up composing this tweet:
There is no fanbase in sports that has been more loyal and Been given less in return than UK Football fans
— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) September 10, 2016
It clearly struck a nerve. Over the course of the last 24 hours, those words have become my 2nd most Retweeted comment in my five-plus years on Twitter (nothing will probably pass my picture of Josh Hutcherson in the student section at a UK game which ended up on insane Hunger Games fan forums). The reason it connected is simple. UK Football fans have hit a level of frustration that may be the highest I have ever seen. After decades of supporting the team at levels far above any natural reward, Kentucky fans have collectively just about had it and the miserable experience Saturday caused many to reach their wits end. After years of rationalizing every explanation in the book as to why Kentucky football is not successful, a stark realization is upon us. The time for excuses is over as Mark Stoops and Mitch Barnhart now must either produce or face the consequences.
Up until this point, Kentucky football has had a myriad of tailor-made explanations for its futility. Depending on your viewpoint, you could have claimed any of these as an issue that simply would prevent UK from ever really competing:
1. The University won’t invest in football
2. Kentucky has no recruiting base in order to get SEC-caliber players
3. UK can’t find (or won’t pay) a Coach of the highest pedigree
4. The facilities at Kentucky are too far behind those of their competition
and the list goes on. Each of these had various degrees of validity and have been relied upon by coaches and administrators in years past. Whether it was Rich Brooks’ frustration with facility projects, Guy Morris’s complaints about salary or Mitch Barnhart’s “microwave society” quote, we have heard every reason in the book as to why UK football has not been able to succeed. It is then somewhat ironic that the coach who has worked hard to dispel some of these excuses as explanations might suffer from our realization that they are no longer disqualifying facts.
The reality is Mark Stoops has flipped the script at Kentucky and he deserves a great deal of credit for it. Since Stoops has been here, we have seen that UK can recruit in the top 25-30 range, a level that can produce players successful enough to win. The excitement generated by this off-the-field success has led to an unprecedented investment in football infrastructure on campus and a practice facility that is as good as any in the land. The hoopla around Stoops’ tenure has proven (contrary to what Gary Danielson said during the Florida broadcast) that Kentucky isn’t just a basketball school to the fans and will still send 50,000 people to a Spring Game to help jumpstart a football program they so desperately want to see succeed. We thought there were a million reasons why Kentucky could not win…but now we see that while those reasons may make it difficult to get to the College Football Playoff, we have the infrastructure in place to win on a smaller level. Or to put it another way, if Rich Brooks could go to 5 straight bowls without any support, with support the sky should be much higher.
But so far under Mark Stoops it hasn’t been. In fact, with the exception of two special nights versus South Carolina, the Stoops era has been one continual repeat of “what might have been.” The past 4 years have seen the UK fan base get its collective hopes up over and over, only to have its heart stepped upon by losses big and small. Whether it was the painful Florida near misses, the Auburn draw play, the EKU near-humiliation, the Vandy systematic embarrassment or the Louisville collapses, we have continually gotten excited about games or moments, only to see a heartbreaking defeat. Often these disappointments have not been due to talent, but instead to mismanagement, disorganization or outright collapse. In some ways, Stoops’ first season has been the least frustrating. The team played hard, often over its head, and fought every game even when outmanned. Since then however, the losses have been much less explainable and significantly more mystifying. Whether its two 1st and Goals from the 1 yard line leading to three total points at Vandy, play calling in big end-of-game situations that baffle or the continuedlack of any discernible half-time adjustments, our problems recently have been self-made, not structural. As such, they are harder to rationalize.
This culminated Saturday in the latest romp in the Swamp. After years of watching UK football, I am not sure if I have even seen Kentucky look worse. I don’t need to go over the details of the game, you saw it. But suffice to say the Cats were humiliated in every way possible on national network television in a time slot that ensured all of America would see. The announcers openly mocked the Cats, but who could blame then. UK looked disorganized and disinterested with no sign of hope that brighter days are to come. After the game, Stoops said we would have to “get back to work,” a cliche that has followed virtually every UK loss and has become this staff’s answer to Billy Clyde’s infamous “have to get tougher.” The resignation in his voice showcased that he too isn’t sure what to do next and even this Saturday’s game against New Mexico State doesn’t seem assured.
The reality is this. The UK Football program is a worse spot now than it was two years ago. After back-to-back competitive games against Florida, the Cats were just blown out. A Southern Miss team that was 1-11 in Stoops’ first season outmanned and out-schemed the Cats in a game the program absolutely had to win. And players who have showcased talent bursts in the past (CJ Conrad, Dorian Baker, Chris Westry) are now afterthoughts of defeats in which one forgets they were even on the field. UK Football has hits its nadir and now is the time for some answers. Mark Stoops has to make a 180 degree turnaround this season or risk losing even more of the fan base and turning Commonwealth Stadium into a ghost town. Mitch Barnhart has to answer for his decision to give Stoops an extension that produces a buyout so large ($12 million) that the obvious answer to 4 years without a bowl game (replacing the coach) has become a financial noose around the program. At the moment UK Football is left with few options and little hope, and it is up to these two men who have helped take us to this point to now try and rescue it.
I like Mark Stoops and Mitch Barnhart both quite a bit personally. What Stoops has done for this program off-the-field is unprecedented and no matter what happens with the rest of his tenure, that impact will have been extremely positive. Mitch Barnhart is a terrific person who has been a tremendous Athletic Director in most phases of his stewardship. But the reality is this. The UK Football Program has hit rock bottom and it is on them to fix it or change has to be made. Kentucky fans have given and given in an attempt to support a program that for decades has more often than not, let them down. There are simply no more explanations for disorganization, no more pleas for hard work or requests for fan patience that will suffice. The time for excuses has ended…UK Football now must produce.