Watching Rich Brooks deliver his final statements to the UK fanbase was difficult for me to watch. I found it sad to see Papaw Brooks finally hang it up at Kentucky with what seems like a tinge of regret. Over the past seven years, Brooks has won over the fanbase in a way that few could have predicted when he was hired, and almost no one would have believed 2-3 years into his reign. Rich took over a program that was decimated by probation, was as low on talent as any major SEC program in recent memory and the upward mobility prospects of Kelvin Sampson at an NCAA Division I Coaches Convention. Yet, he stuck to his principles, helped improve recruiting dramatically, took hits from an impatient fanbase and found a way to do what almost no one thought he would…make Kentucky into a respectable SEC program. He didnt get the big wins he wanted, the victory over Tennessee or the 4th straight Bowl win, and it is clear that eats at him. But he changed the culture at UK, and that simply cant be overestimated.
When evaluating Rich Brooks and his reign at UK, people dont often remember that simple fact. For the first time in my lifetime, Kentucky football is a consistent threat to be more than a doormat in the SEC. For years, when Kentucky was mentioned by other SEC fans (if they were mentioned), it was to either (a) place them with Vanderbilt at the bottom of the league or (b) talk about some odd trait of the program that made it unique…Tim Couch, a fat Quarterback, Mumme-ball, etc. The Cats werent considered a real SEC school worthy of consideration, but rather were the basketball school that had a football team that could basically be ignored.
Brooks inherited that mindset, which had existed for years, and also found that program with vitually no talent on its roster. Now seven years later, Kentucky is in the conversation to move to a middle-of-the-pack SEC Team, a transformation that many thought might never happen. The obstacles at UK are many…a recruiting base that is the worst of any non-Vandy school in the league, a fan base that is more focused on basketball than they will ever be on the pigskin (as seen by the constant conversation on UK-UL basketball on the day Brooks retired), placement in the most difficult division in college football and a lack of facilities to compete totally effectively against its most relevant competition, that of its fellow conference members. Brooks saw those difficulties and got past them, moving the UK program from permanent position in the Vandy-Mississippi State cellar to upward movement into the Arkansas-South Carolina-Ole Miss middle tier. Four straight bowl games have only been accomplished by four schools in the conference in the last four years…and Kentucky is one of them. That is impressive.
Brooks did this by doing something that no other coach at UK has done in the last 20 years, investing in producing depth in the non-skill positions. You can make the claim that UK has had as good of a QB run as any college program in the country in the last 15 years, from Couch to Bonner to Boyd to Lorenzen to Woodson. However where the Cats have never been able to match up is in the trenches. That has changed. Kentucky is no longer dominated at the line of scrimmage on offense or defense and games against top-level SEC opponents are winnable, and not just attempts to avoid humliation.
In addition, Brooks has done what I personally never thought was imaginable, he has won on the road in the SEC. The Cats beat a good Arkansas team on the road in 2007 and got victories at Georgia and at Auburn in 2009, all three games that were simply unfathomable wins even six years ago. A trip on the road in the SEC to any place not named Nashville or Starkville was certain death for UK when Brooks came along. Now it is a realm of possibility, and that is completely due to Brooks.
His critics will suggest that Rich left wins on the table, and they are correct. The 2007 season could have been magical if Kentucky would have beaten Mississippi State at home and converted in one of the many overtimes against Tennessee. This season saw losses to South Carolina and Tennessee that were painful due to the bizarreness of play-calling that will haunt fans (and likely Brooks himself) for years to come. During these “great” UK years, the Cats won 6 or 7 games all four years, and in nearly all of those years, they left wins on the table. Brooks surely knows that and it helps explain a bit of his conflicted nature that showed in his press conference.
But lost wins do not diminish the wins that actually occurred or the effect he has had on UK football. Brooks is beloved by his players in ways you dont often see. Even though he retires at 68, players up to 50 years his junior all are saddened to see him go and to a man, wanted him to remain on for another year. He believes in the players and they believe in him. When I think of my lasting image of Brooks, it will be (along with various screams at referees) the sight of Lones Seiber and he doing the flying chest bump…a 68 year old coach, trying to relate to the players that he manages.
Many have debated what is the proper honor for Brooks’ legacy and I am not entirely clear on what makes sense. Naming a building or facility after him is nice and I hope that it is done. But in the end, his real legacy is simply this. Rich Brooks made UK football relevant and respectable, two qualities it has rarely had in its history. To me, that is the greatest honor he can be bestowed.
We will have more all day and hopefully will have a server that stays up throughout the course of the day. Below is the podcast (which you can subscribe to at this link) and I encourage you to listen if you get a chance. The Joker era begins anew tomorrow…lets hope he is ready: