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By LARRY VAUGHT
NASHVILLE Ã¢â‚¬â€ Those around him knew it might be coming, but no one really wanted to believe that Rich Brooks was going to walk away from coaching.
Yet thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s exactly what the Kentucky coach told his players after SundayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 21-13 loss to Clemson here in the Music City Bowl.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I told my team I was 80 percent sure I was not coming back,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Brooks in his postgame press conference as players Randall Cobb, Zipp Duncan and Corey Peters sat beside him on the podium.
He says he has family coming home and that he will contemplate his decision the next four to five days before making it final.
However, as he took long walk back to the Kentucky dressing room, it seemed obvious what he was going to do. His wife, Karen, had tears streaming down her cheeks as she hugged her husband and then he put his arm around her as they completed the lonely walk.
Both UK president Dr. Lee Todd and athletics director Mitch Barnhart were at the postgame press conference to watch the 68-year-old Brooks basically say his tenure at Kentucky was over. He finished his seventh season at UK with a 7-6 record and now has a 39-47 overall record in seven years at Kentucky. Including his record at Oregon, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 130-156-4 in 25 seasons.
His players were visibly shaken as they tried to explain what it would mean to them if he did leave.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I have learned a lot from him. He taught me so much,Ã¢â‚¬Â Cobb, UKÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s best playmaker, said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“He has the kind of traits I want. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s going to be hard to see him leave if he does. I would be glad to have him back.Ã¢â‚¬Â
So would Duncan, a senior offensive lineman.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“He sold us on a dream and I want to thank him for the opportunity. He taught me a lot of traits you need to be successful in life,Ã¢â‚¬Â Duncan said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“He is a great coach and impacts young men in a positive way. I am proud to have played for him.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Peters had to fight back tears as he described how his final game at UK was doubly painful because of Brooks decision.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“His decision just makes the loss hurt worse,Ã¢â‚¬Â Peters said.
Brooks had sidestepped any questions about his future for over a month. However, he hinted back in July at the Southeastern Conference Media Days that there were no guarantees about his future and that spending time with his grandchildren was becoming more and more important to him as he had friends pass away.
It probably helped that almost a year ago Kentucky announced that offensive coordinator Joker Phillips will take over as head coach when he stepped down.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I think it may be time for a change and time for Joker to take over,Ã¢â‚¬Â Brooks said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Not totally sure. I just felt like maybe itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s time.Ã¢â‚¬Â
He said he needed to Ã¢â‚¬Å“do some thinking about it away from everything.Ã¢â‚¬Â
When he does reflect on his decision, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll be able to do so knowing heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s led UK to four straight winning seasons and four straight bowl games.
He can walk away proudly knowing the program is in far better shape than when he took over after Guy Morriss left for Baylor. Brooks, a former NFL head coach and defensive coordinator, inherited a program short on scholarships because of NCAA probation and sorely lacking in speed.
He was in danger of losing his job midway through the 2006 season when players led by Wesley Woodyard asked Barnhart to keep the coach. The Wildcats rallied to have a winning season and beat Clemson in the Music City Bowl. The next year the Cats beat eventual national champion LSU and then knocked off Florida State in the Music City Bowl.
Last year UK had to rebuild its offense, but still earned a Liberty Bowl bid and beat East Carolina.
This season the Cats won at Auburn and Georgia, something that seemed improbable to many.
It would have been fitting if many ways if Kentucky had rallied to beat Clemson because Brooks has changed the culture at UK by producing 13 fourth-quarter comebacks in the last four seasons. However, perhaps it was more fitting that UK squandered several scoring chances and had a costly turnover in his final game because rather than the exception, those mistakes were common at UK before Brooks arrived.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I could sense he was thinking about it,Ã¢â‚¬Â Cobb said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“You just get a feeling. Maybe it is time for him to move on, maybe it isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t. I would love to have him back.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I am going to make sure I keep in contact and keep a personal relationship with him. I love the man.Ã¢â‚¬Â
And for all heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s done for UK football, my guess is that many, many fans as well as players Ã¢â‚¬â€ both present and past Ã¢â‚¬â€ feel exactly the same way and should.