Two years ago, as the college football season was about to begin, Michael Kruse wrote these opening lines for an article on Oregon football for Grantland, “There is next to no reason the University of Oregon should have a good football team. Eugene is a small city and is not near a major media market, there’s very little local college-caliber talent, and for literally 100 years the Ducks did almost nothing but lose.” Sound familiar? Replace Oregon with Kentucky and you have a very similar premise< – only we have the added benefit of massive television exposure with the SEC.
Seven months earlier, right before Oregon played in the BCS championship game, Michael Rosenberg tackled a similar idea. How did Oregon go from chumps to championship contenders? It began as all great football programs do, with Rich Brooks laying the foundation. Mike Bellotti would take the Ducks to the next level in the mid 90's, but it wasn't until recently that Oregon transcended from Pac-12 power to a legitimate player on the national stage. Both writers – and any fan with half an eye – came to the same conclusion. Branding.
Oregon went from a school with a goofy duck for a mascot, to one with some of the best facilities outside the south. From a 2002, $90 million dollar stadium face lift, to a rumored $40+ million dollar academic facility, Rosenberg noted that “kids would travel to Eugene just to see the facilities, even if they weren’t going to sign with the Ducks.” But it didn’t matter. The philosophy was – if you can’t get kids to look at you, they won’t sign with you. So get them to look, first.
Getting people to look was made a lot easier, too, when players went from wearing these, to wearing these. Roll those changes up, fit them in a mold of high octane offense, and let them trot their new found excitement out against traditional powers (USC, Standford) and you’ve got the recipe for a successful program where once there was nothing.
In other words, we should have seen this summer coming. For years there was a strong contingent of people saying – there’s no way Kentucky can compete with the Florida’s, the Alabama’s, even the Tennessee’s year in and year out in the SEC. There simply isn’t enough in state talent, there’s not enough attention paid to football, the facilities are a couple of picnic tables in Nutter Field House, and the style of play isn’t exciting.
And no matter what you think, those voices were right. There was no way Kentucky could compete at a high level, with those things all staying at the status quo. There was no way Oregon would have been in the BCS championship game a couple years ago without the influence of Nike, Phil Knight, and a gigantic rebranding effort.
This is where you have to give Mark Stoops credit. He looked at Kentucky and didn’t think – well, it’s a job I can go in to, perform better than their last coach by default, and jump to a better job in a couple years. Stoops came here, and he intends to win. In many ways, he has followed the Oregon model. He brought in an exciting offense – as documented, Neal Brown called 80 plays a game compared to Chip Kelly’s 77, and he wants to be one of the fastest tempo teams in the league. He found new ways to recruit in the short term by attacking Ohio and activating the BBN hype machine, and he is rebranding the program to get recruits in the long term. So when you see that Commonwealth is finally getting the $110 million dollar face lift, when you hear the new music on game day, when you see recruits tweeting pictures of new jerseys, and when you feel the excitement and party atmosphere surrounding UK football these days, embrace it. Change is good, when it’s change from something that stinks.
Will Kentucky be storming the door of the SEC title game next year? Not likely. Chip Kelly struggled out of the gate with his first Oregon team, before hitting his stride in Pac 12 play. Kentucky doesn’t have the luxury of playing in the Pac 12. Nick Saban’s Alabama went 7-6 in his first year. As good as Stoops has been, he isn’t a national championship coach (yet). As cool as black matte helmets are, they aren’t going to stop SEC wide receivers if our secondary cannot. But the foundation has been laid.
If you can’t compete with Alabama, don’t be Alabama. If you can’t compete as the old Kentucky, don’t be the old Kentucky. Embrace the change.
The Cats are coming.