My thoughts exactly, old timey cheerleaders…
Okay, I admit it. I, along with many of my blue-clad brethren, once again fell victim to a time-honored Kentucky football blunder: the August oversell. Unlike some of the nation’s more prestigious programs who thrive in the cooler months of Fall, Kentucky football is traditionally at its best in the month of August. In August, with the long season not yet underway, there is always a sense of excitement and optimism that this may be the magical year our beloved Cats become truly formidable. The August news cycle is alive with glowing reports of strength increases from returning veterans and heroic tales of dazzling new freshmen who have yet to miss a tackle or drop a pass. In August, a full nine months have passed since the last time the Cats saw defeat on the football field, leaving those painful memories hazy. (That’s right. If you got bored during last year’s Tennessee game and found yourself impregnated, congrats on your newborn! I hope she hates Tennessee as much as I do.)
The annual August enthusiasm was ramped up all the more this season by the systemic changes in the football program that have occurred over the last several months. The momentum began with the much-lauded hiring of head man Mark Stoops. It escalated with the hiring of a fantastic coaching staff and the announcement of a major university commitment to upgrade facilities. It reached new heights with the summer of Yahtzee, which announced to the football world that Mark Stoops and company were serious about football in Kentucky. With all of these positive developments for the program, it became very easy for fans, even those of us who believed we were being realistic about the present state of the Wildcat program, to fall into the familiar trap of overestimating our current roster. For those who traveled that familiar road with me on Saturday, it was a painful journey, but one I believe has an ultimate destination far different than the one to which we have grown accustomed.
Kentucky has suffered more than its share of humbling defeats over the years. Of course, the Western game last year springs immediately to mind, but there have been many others in the history of Kentucky football. For example, if you were one of the proud dozens of Wildcat fans who watched the Cats fall to Northeast Louisiana in 1994, and have not sunken into a medically or Old Crow-induced coma by now, please share your woeful tale in the comments section. The losses of the “Old Kentucky” were different than the loss Kentucky suffered on Saturday. The embarrassing losses of previous regimes were an indication that the program was continuing on a road to nowhere. There was no real sense that things were getting better. Saturday’s loss stung because it was a reminder of the long climb we have ahead as a program, but it is a climb that will be made. I have no doubt of that.
Good coaches and good programs are not immune to losing games to supposedly inferior programs. Nick Saban may currently preside over the greatest winning machine in modern football history at Alabama, but his enormous football talent, and larger ego, could not stop the Tide from falling to Louisiana Monroe in 2007. Nick also lost to UAB in Tiger Stadium in his first season at LSU. Saban overcame these losses, and ultimately the Tide faithful erected a statue of Andy Griffith in his honor.
Frank Beamer, a future hall of famer, went 24-40 and 2 in his first five seasons at Virginia Tech before turning the Hokies into a program of national prominence. Two previous coach of the year winners, Mike Riley at Oregon State and Bill Snyder at Kansas State, lost to FCS (formerly 1-AA) programs last week. The point is that disappointing losses happen, particularly in the building stages of a program. As seen with Beamer and Saban, those losses do not necessarily define the direction of a program.
In the case of the Cats, this year’s August optimism should not be relegated to just one month. Kentucky fans should carry it throughout the season in spite of the mounting losses that may appear on the record. The record at this point is largely meaningless anyway. Stoops has, to the greatest extent he can without bad-mouthing either his current players or the previous staff, been very frank about the fact that this will not be an overnight fix. Football rebuilding takes time. But with the recruiting that has taken place to this point, and the promise of much needed improvements to the infrastructure of the program, it is evident that real change is coming. And fans can be a part of that change. Kentucky’s huge surge in recruiting in the last year has been in large part due to the fans. How many recruits have commented on how they were sold by the vast showing of blue at the Spring Game? Many more recruits have raved about the love they receive from thousands of Kentucky fans on twitter. There will likely be recruits at every game this season. Think of the message fans could deliver by showing their unwavering support throughout the season despite whatever the ultimate record may be.
Last year’s Western loss represented an ending. It was an ending of hope for a successful season, and at least the beginning of the ending of the Joker Phillips era. On the other hand, Saturday’s Western loss was just a small part of the story of Mark Stoops’ rebuilding project. The loss that began his coaching career is different from those that defined the careers of many of his predecessors. There is real disappointment that the Cats are not yet what we dreamed they would be this August, but there is also something attached to the setback that has not often been seen in Lexington. There is legitimate hope. So hang on and enjoy the ride Cats fans. It will make the ultimate successes that much sweeter.