Kentucky football finally the ‘Real Thing’

Published 12:45 pm Friday, January 3, 2020

Like the old Coca-Cola’s marketing campaign back in the 1970s, UK football is now the “Real Thing.”

Yes, coach Mark Stoops’ Wildcats are becoming a regular threat in SEC battles. They are now winning against the mid-tier conference schools along with a chance to beat SEC (and national) powerhouses like Florida and Georgia.

And Kentucky has won against the bowl veterans like Penn State and Virginia Tech in the VRBO Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day in 2019 and the Belk Bowl on New Year’s Eve.

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After two straight 7-5 seasons with bowl appearances in Jacksonville and Nashville, the 2018 Wildcats, led by superstars Josh Allen and Benny Snell Jr., improved to 10-3, which was UK’s best season in 41 years.

Then, the 2019 Wildcats, who lost 16 starters from the previous year, somehow had enough talent and heart to overcome injuries to top quarterbacks Terry Wilson and Sawyer Smith, and come up with another memorable campaign. With help of the offensive line – the so-called Big Blue Wall – All-American Lynn Bowden Jr., a star receiver who was moved to quarterback, sparked Kentucky to a surprising storybook success. The 8-5 Wildcats roared to finish strong with four straight wins, setting several single-season school records in rushing.

So, UK has won 32 games over the last four seasons, the most in a four-year span since its golden years of 1949-52.

Needless to say, the Big Blue Nation is now having a great time with the pigskin Wildcats. Following UK football lately has become more fashionable and a lot more fun. Just like the old days when Paul “Bear” Bryant and Rich Brooks coached the Wildcats to three or more consecutive bowl trips during the 1950s and 2000s, respectively. Even future NFL championship coach Blanton Collier did fairly well during his eight seasons at UK (1954-1961) in following Bryant’s steps even though Collier’s Cats didn’t go bowling. Collier’s teams, by the way, posted a winning record against the rival Tennessee Vols with a 5-2-1 mark.

Personally, I began to follow the UK football program during the early 1970s when former Notre Dame assistant John Ray was coaching the Wildcats at the old Stoll Field. But Ray’s Cats didn’t do much at the time, posting woeful records of 2-8, 2-9, 3-8 and 3-8 during his four-year tenure at Kentucky. Times were bleak and it was difficult for me to get enthused about UK.

Then Kentucky hired Fran Curci, the charismatic head coach from the University of Miami, and things got better. It was during the Curci era when I began writing about sports for the campus daily newspaper at UK and he once invited me for an exclusive interview at his home on Tates Creek Road in Lexington. He actually got me more interested in the program.

Curci’s Cats went 9-3, including a 21-0 Peach Bowl win over North Carolina, and 10-1 with a national ranking of No. 6 (no bowl due to NCAA probation) during his fourth and fifth seasons at Kentucky. Then the program went downhill, suffering some off-the-field issues, and he was fired after the 1981 season. Earlier, during the summer of 1981, my boss, Oscar Combs, who was the founder and editor of The Cats Pause, broke the story that Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. wanted to replace Curci with ex-Washington Redskins coach George Allen.

While coach Jerry Claiborne found modest success at Kentucky during the 1980s with two bowl trips, the respectable Wildcats still struggled. Then they surprisingly got worse on the field under former Alabama boss Bill Curry with the exception of the 1993 Wildcats who played in the Peach Bowl.

Then little-known Hal Mumme came along and generated some excitement with offensive fireworks and future NFL standout Tim Couch. The Cats traveled to the Outback and Music City bowls after the 1998 and 1999 seasons before they were hit with NCAA penalties due to rules violations.

Next was Guy Morriss, who coached the Cats, led by junior QB Jared Lorenzen, to a 7-5 mark in 2002, including that infamous 33-30 loss to coach Nick Saban’s LSU team, before leaving for Baylor. As you’ll recall, in the final moments of the LSU’s “Bluegrass Miracle,” Morriss got soaked in a premature Gatorade bath and the Wildcat fans were getting ready to storm the field and tear down the goalposts at Commonwealth Stadium. As it turned out, LSU came back and won on the game’s last play with a Hail Mary pass.

After Morriss’ two-year stay at Kentucky, the school hired former NFL coach Rich Brooks to take over the program. After a three-year struggle at UK, Brooks finally found a winning touch and the Wildcats became very respectable with four straight bowl appearances.

Brooks retired after the 2009 Music City Bowl campaign and his offensive coordinator, Joker Phillips, became the new boss at UK. After Phillips’ initial season which saw the 2010 Wildcats post a 6-7 mark overall, including a bowl trip to Birmingham, Kentucky struggled in the next two seasons.

And Mark Stoops was lured away from Jimbo Fisher’s coaching staff at Florida State to become the next coach at Kentucky, beginning with the 2013 campaign. After rebuilding the program in his first three years, the Wildcats have posted four straight winning seasons. Stoops now ranks third on the list as UK’s all-time winningest coach with 44 victories behind Bryant’s 60 and Curci’s 47.

Anyhow, as you can see, UK football has been up and down for the past 50 years or so, but mostly down. Traditionally, the school had been known as the graveyard for football coaches as it really struggled to find a path to winning football on a consistent basis.

But Stoops and his staff certainly have turned things around and Kroger Field is slowly becoming a big-time college football atmosphere. The Wildcats, with recent years of successful recruiting, now have a decent chance to win every game.

Following a stunning and memorable finish against the Virginia Tech Hokies in the 2019 Belk Bowl, UK’s future is very bright and several key standouts will be returning next fall even though the schedule is perhaps slightly more difficult.

Well, it’s the most exciting time I have ever seen about UK football. And it’s sure a very thrilling time to be a Wildcat fan and the Wildcats are for real.

Just like that old Coke commercial.