Sunday, September 30, 2007

Can Vegetarians Eat Crow?

I don't often let my life long obsession with sports intrude into my blogging life, but I'm about to do it for only the second time. Like my first foray into sports blogging, the presenting issue here is once again an unprecedented development in the wacky world of University of Kentucky athletics. (And, for the record, I do wish that state universities - especially state flagship universities - would invest more in academics and less in athletics. If they paid philosophy professors 1/10th what they paid football coaches, the world would be a very different place!)

The last (and, until today, only) time I've blogged about sports, the University of Kentucky had just seen their first ever black basketball coach - former three-time national coach of the year and 1998 NCAA national title winner Tubby Smith - become the first UK basketball coach to voluntarily leave the bluegrass state to go where the grass would presumably be greener, albeit a bit more frost-covered. Motivated in part - though he never said so - by the unrealistic (perennially insane) demands of a rabid fan base, combined with a culture of entrenched racism that made this class act and world-class basketball coach persona non grata despite his rich contribution to the legacy of Kentucky basketball, Mr. Smith went to Minnesota.

Today this situation, and the subject, is a bit different. The University of Kentucky hasn't had a great football program since Bear Bryant, wilting in the long shadow of basketball coach/living deity Adolph Rupp, moved to Alabama to become Bear Bryant, a living deity in his own right. The history of UK football is littered with the mangled corpses of false hopes from seasons past. But, after an ignominious (read "miserable," or even "apparently inept") start to his tenure as UK football coach, Rich Brooks - long the single least popular public figure in the state of Kentucky (and, with our current governor's anemic approval rating and history of corruption and gross incompetence, that's really saying something) - has his Wildcat football team on the cusp of greatness.

Of course, things could fall apart in an instant. This is, after all, Kentucky football we're talking about. This is the football program that has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory so man times that my father once, with tears streaming down his face after his beloved Wildcats managed to intercept seven passes from Florida's All-American quarterback Danny Weurfal and still find a way to lose the game, told me, in all seriousness:

Never, ever, become a University of Kentucky football fan. They'll tear your heart out every time.

But, for the first time since 1984, the Kentucky Wildcats are 5-0 to start a season. For the first time since 1977 (the year my lovely wife was born!) they find themselves in the Top 10 of a college football poll, coming in at #8 in both major polls. Better than that, on their way to this glorious start they've managed to do two things that Kentucky football teams have never been able to do:

1. Beat teams they have no business beating (see victories over Louisville and Arkansas, two teams that returned the bulk of their talent from last season's Top Ten teams, who each seemed poised to make a run this year), and

2. Beat teams they have no business losing to (see this week's 45-17 win over Florida Atlantic, in a classic "trap" game, situated right after the huge wins against Louisville and Arkansas, and right before games against #11 South Carolina, #1 LSU, and #9 Florida).

So what, other than that it makes me very, very excited, does this have to do with me? I'm glad you asked. Coach Rich Brooks controversially arrived at UK right after former coach Guy Morris left for Baylor when new Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart refused to pay him a competitive salary despite a surprising 7 win season. Morris became a legend in the state of Kentucky for leading an entertaining and over-achieving team that had been saddled with NCAA sanctions for the sins of the previous Hal Mumme regime. That, however, wasn't good enough for Barnhart, who refused to make any attempt to keep Morris after Baylor made a bid for his services. Barnhart promised to bring in a "name" coach, and notoriously said he was close to signed NFL legend Bill Parcells, before finally going with "Mr. Personality," Rich Brooks.

Brooks' less than energetic persona, accompanied by his willingness to bad-mouth beloved former coach Guy Morris and his status as Barnhart's long-time friend and former colleague, made UK football fans instantly suspicious of him. His persistent inability to win football games, along with his teams' apparent wholesale lack of discipline, confirmed a rabid fan bases' worst fears. After the bright promise of the all-too-short Morris era, Kentucky was once again saddled with an inept coach. Losses mounted, and memories turned to the bright and nearly winless era of former coach Bill "two yards and a cloud of dust" Curry. It was not a good time to be a UK football fan. The natives were restless, and wanted someone's head.

And I, I'm afraid to say, was a native.

Unlike most of my friends and family, I never said that Rich Brooks should be fired. But that shouldn't be mistaken for a vote of confidence in the man. I just didn't see the wisdom in paying someone millions of dollars not to coach a football team. Personally, I think major college football coach salaries are obscene enough without trying to add a buyout to the deal. If Brooks was going to bilk our state's flagship university out of millions of dollars, the least he could do in my book was show up to work each day. So, to me, firing him never made any sense. His contract was guaranteed. He'd make his money one way or another. So, instead of calling for his head, I counted the days until his contract was up - much like I'm now counting the days until the end of the Bush administration.

Little did I or anyone else know, Mr. Brooks had a plan.

After a dismal start, Kentucky managed to win 8 games - including a win over Clemson in the Music City Bowl - last season. Spirits were starting to soar. Or, at least, they were no longer buried in a not-so-shallow grave. Cautious optimism was the order of the day.

But, now that UK is one win away from its first 6-0 start since 1950; now that Kentucky is a Top 10 team sitting ahead of defending national champion Florida both in the SEC East and in the AP's national college football poll... Well, let's just say that the optimism in these parts is less than cautious. Things haven't been this exciting in my lifetime!

So, that brings me back to my favorite subject: me. I've spent the last few years reciting to anyone who cares about college football the litany of coaching sins of one Rich Brooks. The very same Rich Brooks who now has my beloved Wildcat on the precipice of unprecedented success. So, to Rich Brooks, the much-maligned coach of this incredible Kentucky team, I have this to say:

I'm sorry.

I really am.

I'm sorry I judged you so hastily.

My bad.

It turns out, despite the appearance of your first few years around here, you really can coach football, and coach it well.

I'm sure that, if things keep going the way they are now, more than a few other Kentuckians will happily add their apologies to my own.

So, now I have to ask:

Can vegetarians eat crow?

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