How Rich Brooks ended the basketball monopoly at Kentucky
Rich Brooks took over a program on life support and made it relevant again
He's the only UK coach to lead the Wildcats to three straight Bowl victories
The next challenge: Proving even with Calipari, UK's not just a hoops school
Kentucky's identity has long been defined by the three staples engrained into the DNA of every son and daughter of the Bluegrass State: basketball, bourbon and horse racing. It's only natural that Maker's Mark, purveyor of the state's trademark libation, has produced limited edition bottles honoring hoops luminaries Adolph Rupp and Rick Pitino and Triple Crown winner Secretariat.
So when Kentucky football coach Rich Brooks held the bottle bearing his name and likeness at a news conference this spring, he probably felt like he'd hit the Powerball jackpot.
Few could have imagined Brooks attaining that level of notoriety during his first three seasons with the Wildcats, when the losses piled up and "Ditch Mitch and Rich" bumper stickers and T-shirts flooded Lexington.
To Brooks, the pleas to can him and Mitch Barnhart, the athletic director who brought him to town, were nothing new. "They had them at Oregon, too," said Brooks, who led the Ducks from 1977-94. "They had the 'Ditch Rich' ones, so it's nothing I'm not used to."
Brooks is also used to winning over those naysayers. At Oregon, Brooks laid the foundation for the Ducks' rise to national prominence. At Kentucky, he's altered the perception of Wildcats football, inside and out. Despite inheriting a program on probation and with just 68 scholarship players on its roster, he's become the first coach in Kentucky history to win three straight bowl games.
"I have people come up to me and tell me 'Coach, I got to apologize, I was one of those people that didn't believe you were the right guy for the job and I was wrong,'" said Brooks, who takes a little pride in the fact that those who were begging the school to "Ditch Rich" have changed their tune.
Brooks doesn't want too much credit for reviving the program, though. "I've got a great coaching staff and we've recruited better players," he said. "It's pretty simple." But if turning around Kentucky were so straightforward, it's hard to understand why Guy Morriss, Hal Mumme, Bill Curry, Jerry Claiborne, Fran Curci, John Ray and Charlie Bradshaw, the seven men who held the position before Brooks, failed to cobble together more than two consecutive winning seasons. "It may not be [that simple]," Brooks conceeded. "But that's kind of the plan."
Truth be told, there was a little more to it than that. When Brooks arrived in Lexington as the Wildcats' third coach in 22 months, he inherited a team with just one player on the roster who ran a sub-4.5 40-yard dash. In the world of the SEC, that's like trying to compete with a Model T in an NHRA drag racing event. The talent gap led to 25 losses in Brooks' first three seasons, but Brooks knew he could recruit speed and upgrade talent. Improving the product on the field and generating support weren't the biggest obstacles (UK has ranked in the top 31 nationally in attendance each of the last eight years). The Commonwealth Curse was.
Those in Lexington have long upheld Murphy's Law, knowing that on Saturdays, anything that can go wrong inevitably will. In the four years before Brooks' arrival, the Wildcats had lost 10 of their last 13 games decided by eight points or less, including their last nine in SEC play.
Tom Leach, the play-by-play voice of UK football since 2001, understands the fans' fragile belief. "I think the Kentucky basketball fan, if their team is down one minute to go in a close game they believe they are going to win," said Leach, whose impending book Rich Tradition chronicles the program's rejuvenation under Brooks. "For a long time the Kentucky football fan, if that team was ahead with a minute to go, they feared a win was going to be taken away from them."
In 2006, three-and-a-half seasons into Brooks' tenure, it seemed impossible to change that philosophy. The Wildcats limped home from Baton Rouge following a 49-0 drubbing at LSU and the clamor to "Ditch Rich" had grown into a holler heard from Covington to Middlesborough, Hickman to Paw Paw. Brooks truly believed his days were numbered. "We had a bye week and we were going to play Mississippi State and I felt if I didn't win the next game that I might not be coaching the rest of the season," he said. "The pressure, the scrutiny, the fan base. The administration was getting hammered. It was pretty shaky ... very shaky."
So Brooks did what he seems hard-wired to do; he simplified things. He focused on fundamentals. He preached blocking and tackling. He spoke of the players' legacy at Kentucky. Fourteen days after the debacle in Death Valley, the Wildcats survived Mississippi State 34-31 on the road. A week later they notched a 24-20 win over Georgia that led UK fans to tear down the goalposts in Commonwealth Stadium.
"In 21 days they went from the low point of the Rich Brooks era to probably the high point," said Leach.
The Wildcats ended the year 8-5, earning their first bowl berth since 1999 and beating Clemson in the Music City Bowl. They followed that effort with another 8-5 campaign in 2007, which included an era-defining triple-overtime win over LSU and another Music City Bowl victory, this time over Florida State. Last season, Brooks guided Kentucky to the Liberty Bowl vs. East Carolina and became the first coach to lead UK to three straight bowl games since Bear Bryant did it from 1949-51. But unlike Bryant, Brooks managed victories in all three bowls, and the Liberty Bowl win completed the team's first string of three-straight winning seasons in 53 years.
As Kentucky's fortunes have changed, so too has the program's mindset. But obstacles remain. In 2009, the Wildcats face a daunting schedule that includes matchups with Alabama (which Kentucky has beaten just once in the last 34 meetings), Auburn (which it hasn't beaten since 1966), Florida (which it hasn't beaten since 1986), South Carolina (which it hasn't beaten since '99) and Tennessee (which it hasn't beaten since 1984). But Brooks welcomes the challenge. "Those are things that we need to overcome if we want to make a serious climb up the SEC ladder," Brooks said.
The Wildcats have the potential to be better than last year's unit, which ranked 106th in total offense but returns eight starters, including sophomore quarterback Mike Hartline, who passed for 1,666 yards, nine touchdowns and eight interceptions in his first year as a starter. Rimington candidate Jorge Gonzalez returns at center to lead an offensive line that, with a combined 86 starts to its credit, boasts the second-most experience in the SEC behind Georgia. But while the defense returns all-SEC linebacker Micah Johnson and corner Trevard Lindley, it will need to replace seven starters, including Jeremy Jarmon, who unexpectedly lost his last year of eligibility after testing positive for a banned substance.
In addition to continuing the unprecedented and unexpected run Brooks has pieced together, this season could test if Kentucky has finally become more than just a basketball school, or if Brooks' program has simply filled the void for disgruntled basketball fans for the past three seasons.
Kentucky football's ascension came during a surreal time for the state's biggest non-denominational following: The Church of Rupp. UK football doesn't draw Ashley Judd or boast seven national championships, but while the basketball program dipped under Billy Gillispie, Brooks' team stepped into fans' hearts.
Since John Calipari and his dribble-drive motion offense arrived, Kentucky has clearly again caught hoops fever. But Calipari brought some unexpected baggage (see lawsuits, a breaking and entering plea and an SAT scandal) with him, too, and some fans believe the comparatively sterling way Brooks has conducted himself will continue to endear him to the masses. On the Kentucky fan site CatsPause.com, user notlifeordeath said "with the Gillispie lawsuit and the SAT scandal brewing in Memphis that is attaching itself to Calipari [wrongly or rightly], it makes me appreciate Brooks and this staff even more for the way they've built the program."
Ultimately, that's also the most important thing to Brooks, who believes in leaving things better than he found them. It took Brooks 12 years to lead Oregon to a bowl game, but then he did so in four of his last six years. When he left town, Mike Bellotti, who had been on board for each of those bowl games as offensive coordinator, was able to turn the program into a power. Brooks hopes for some déjà vu at Lexington, where Joker Phillips, another offensive guru, has earned the coach-in-waiting label even though Brooks remains under contract through 2011.
"To me that's what it's about," Brooks said. "It's about building something up from what was missing."
To hear Brooks tell it, that's not so difficult.
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