It has barely been a year since I began ‘covering’ the Wildcat Football; during that time the football program has seen its fair share of ups and downs. For those of you that have seen it through your television screens, it was pretty rough; you probably just tried to ignore the team last fall. If you thought it was bad, take the time to read this post and put on my shoes for a couple minutes; coming from a season-ticket holding family, getting to cover the football team as a media member was the most exciting thing to happen to me since I got to college. That excitement was met with disappointment, then it got even worse, now it’s even better than before. Follow me through the craziest parts of the last 8 months of Kentucky Football.
September 15, 2012; UK 31- WKU 32: Anytime you lose to Louisville to start the season it sucks, but after beating down Kent State the Cats had a chance to build some momentum before beginning a gruesome SEC schedule. I never thought my friends’ trash-talk would come true, but WKU never stopped fighting, winning on a trick play in OT. Adding insult to injury, the person that threw the game-winning pass on a trick play (NCAA’s all-purpose leader Antonio Andrews) in Overtime, was the same guy that led his Ft. Campbell team to a come-from-behind win against me in the 2009 State Championship. The words bitter or salty do not give my hate the proper justice. The team’s play was so disgusting, I left the media box with 10 minutes remaining because I feared I may get in trouble for cursing at the team. This loss was the first early-turning point in the demise of Joker Phillips. No matter how well Joker’s team performed the rest of the season, fans could always say, “Well they lost to Western.” There were simply no excuses. Joker’s battle became even more dangerous after Max Smith was injured, leaving QB duties between two True Freshman and Morgan Newton for the rest of the season.
November 3, 2012; Vandy 40- UK 0– A memory we’d all like to forget, this rainy afternoon at Commonwealth Stadium is about as low as you can go. With less than 15,000 people in attendance, the Cats got shutout by the team that used to be UK’s one automatic SEC win. Joker was fired the next day, giving him one last hurrah against Samford on Senior Day the following week. I will never forget the words Rob Bromley said to me as the final minutes ticked off the clock, “I’ve been doing this 35 years -hopefully you have even more of those ahead of you- in all of that time I’ve never seen anything like this, and you’ll probably never see anything like this ever again.”
December 2, 2012; Mark Stoops’ Press Conference- I don’t think any person that attended the conference knew what they were in for when they arrived. You couldn’t find more buzz in the air if walked into a beehive. The band and cheerleaders were expected, but the inflatables, giant televisions, and hundreds of alumni made the situation unlike any other. I couldn’t have been more excited that we had a coach with the last name Stoops, but I didn’t know too much about the guy and wasn’t preparing to ask our new coach a question. Enter Matt Jones’ slick-ass; Matt had already asked a couple questions before turning to me, “Go ahead and ask him one, nobody’s said anything about Cal yet.” After saying sure, seconds hadn’t even passed before a microphone was in my shaking hand and Coach Stoops’ eyes were on me. The lump in my throat barely let words escape my mouth. It wasn’t great (I used the words ‘We’, a no-no, and I became the guy that asked about basketball on football’s biggest day), but I did it. Everyone has to start somewhere, and since then I have grown to form a good relationship with the coaches and an even better one with the players.
December 10, 2012; Neal Brown hired as Offensive Coordinator- Mark Stoops was a great find, but he couldn’t do it by himself. If I could pinpoint Joker’s demise, it would be his incompetent assistant coaches. Brown was the important first piece to the puzzle to fall in place. Stoops needed an offensive mastermind to counter his successful defensive philosophy. The ‘Kentucky guy’ not only brought in some recruits, but he brought in other great recruiters. This coaching staff will single-handedly be the reason for UK’s success in the future. This group of young guys is very motivated, creating a different energy during practice. They know how to recruit, building great relationships with the prospects before they become players.
January 5, 2013; Jaleel Hytchye Commits to Play for UK- While Hytchye may not be as talented as important basketball recruits like John Wall or Jamal Mashburn, in the future we will consider his commitment to be just as influential. The 4-Star Cornerback will not make as great as an impact in the fall as Za’Darius Smith, but the recruiting impact is already being felt. Since Stoops’ picked up his first high school commitment from an Ohio player, 4 other players from Ohio have pledged their services to UK with more on the horizon (Mikel Horton is expected to commit today). These players may not be game-changers for another couple years, but Stoops’ pledge to open a recruiting pipeline in Ohio took him only 2 months to fulfill.
February 6, 2013; National Signing Day- Who would’ve thought that in 66 short days as Head Coach Mark Stoops would’ve signed UK’s best recruiting class EVER? Would anyone have thought that he could keep his promise to recruit in Ohio and “keep the best players home” in that short amount of time? Even the biggest football optimist like myself wouldn’t have guessed that. Not only did he snag two 4-star Ohio prospects, but he persuaded a Louisville Trinity superstar (Jason Hatcher) from going to USC or Louisville. I wouldn’t call it an impossible task (because he did it), but it’s hard to grasp the fact that a player turned down the Sugar Bowl Champs and USC’s fantastic program for a team that went 2-10 the previous year.
April 13, 2013; The Blue/White game shatters attendance records– The previous 5 months of hype and excitement around the program came to climax last Saturday night. Coach Stoops’ recruiting efforts were matched by UK’s marketing department, with commercials promoting the game seen daily in the Lexington area. Fans did not want to miss their first chance to see the new-look Wildcats, with thousands showing up early to tailgate and invite their team home during the Cat Walk. The crowd of 50,831 gave the team a new life after experiencing the worst of the worst 5 months prior. The largest crowd for an SEC Spring game and second-highest in the nation, showed the 50+ highly-rated recruits in attendance that the fan base loves their football team. Even though the on-field performance wasn’t anything too memorable, this game will be seen as a turning-point in the program for many years to come.