Three years ago, three college football teams in the state of Kentucky were embarking upon new eras. Kentucky, Louisville and Western Kentucky each handed over their programs to new head coaches. Each of the programs took a different path to find their new leader. Kentucky went with the “coach in waiting” label a few years earlier, easing Joker Phillips into the role as Rich Brooks’ right hand man and lead recruiter. The combination of a sense of fluidity in the program, along with the fact that Phillips is a Kentucky boy through and through (raised in Kentucky, played for Kentucky), left many hoping Phillips could keep the ball rolling. Louisville went to one of the best programs in the country (Florida) and hired away one of their top assistants, Charlie Strong– a defensive expert, considered to be one of the potential next big names in the world of college football. And Western Kentucky went with a very young (in fact the youngest coach in NCAA Div. I football), former star WKU player, not saddled with much coaching experience, but full of passion and love for the program.
Three years ago the three programs were in very different places. Kentucky was coming off of the Rich Brooks era, which started off rough but ended with 4 straight bowl appearances. Brooks led Kentucky to 3 straight bowl victories as well. During the last 4 years of Brooks’ tenure with the Wildcats, Kentucky managed to pull off some of the program’s biggest wins over SEC conference foes such as Auburn, Georgia and a #1-ranked LSU. Although Kentucky still hadn’t managed a winning SEC record, the expectation of reaching a bowl at the conclusion of a season had become attainable in the eyes of most fans. Louisville was coming off a very low point, known to some as the “Kragthorpe era.” Louisville had missed on a bowl appearance in each of Kragthorpe’s 3 seasons at the helm. Even worse, the season before Kragthorpe’s arrival, Louisville was coming off of an Orange Bowl victory. Louisville fans were in a downward spiral, as Kragthorpe had been consuming a yearly dosage of Rich Brooks’ a** (sorry for the language, old KSR joke). Western Kentucky’s football program was without question in the worst shape of the three before Taggart’s arrival. Western Kentucky was still in the adjustment stages of transitioning into a full Division I football program. The Hilltoppers were sporting college football’s longest losing streak (26 games).
Three years ago Kentucky was the best team in the state, with fans aching for movement into the middle of the pack in the SEC. And it didn’t feel like such a pipe dream at the time. Three years ago Louisville football was the definition of mediocrity, struggling to make waves in the weakest BCS conference. Western Kentucky was fighting for the title of worst team in Division I college football. The pecking order following the 2009 season in the state of Kentucky was as follows:
3) Western Kentucky
Fast forward 3 years, and everything has changed.
Kentucky football is dangling at a low point. Kentucky missed a bowl last year. Missing a bowl wasn’t necessarily the biggest issue though. The biggest cause for concern had more to do with the fact that the Wildcats struggled to even keep the score competitive in way too many SEC games. Losing to in-state rival Louisville certainly didn’t do anything to help the cause either. Sometimes a victory over Louisville can soften the blow of a mediocre season. Now Kentucky is 3 games into the 2012 season and they are sitting with a 1-2 record, with a crushing loss at the hands of a much better Louisville team and an unfathomable loss to a Sun Belt team. The fact that the Sun Belt team is a smaller in-state school makes the loss even worse. The pressure on Joker Phillips is only increasing by the day.
Louisville football fans are legitimately talking about the possibility of an undefeated season. The buzz quieted momentarily when they blew a huge first half lead to North Carolina, barely escaping with a win–but they still sit at 3-0 and find themselves climbing rapidly in most national top 25 polls. Louisville’s schedule leaves the window open for a very successful season. Teddy Bridgewater is a rising star in college football, whether you feel comfortable admitting it or not. I’ll admit it for you. Charlie Strong is doing so well that his name gets thrown into the conversation anytime a team in the SEC loses a game, or even fumbles a football. Louisville football fans are nothing short of giddy. As much as it pains me to say it, they have reason to feel that way (at least until the Arkansas job opens up…)
Western Kentucky football won’t be winning a national championship anytime soon, but ask the fans who danced and celebrated on the field last night an hour after the game concluded if that matters to them. Willie Taggart is as confident as they come. He teeters on being too confident, maybe at times toeing the line of saying too much. But to his credit, at least last night– he backed it up. His players are clearly buying into what he’s selling them. His confidence is oozing from him and his players are following suit. Western Kentucky just scored a huge win over an opponent from the SEC. WKU picked up 3 votes in the USA Today’s Top 25 coaches poll. Taggart is the hottest young name in college football right now and his gutsy call to use a trick play to finish off Kentucky in OT last night only increased the number of text messages and missed calls for whoever his agent is. WKU has a legitimate chance to make a bowl game this season and the fans are proudly puffing out their chests this week.
3 years later and the biggest issue for Kentucky football isn’t even that they are behind Louisville in the pecking order…
2) Western Kentucky
What a difference 3 years can make…