With the success that baseball, softball and tennis teams have had at the University of Kentucky this spring, some have wondered why the UKâ€ˆfootball team has not been able to challenge for Southeastern Conference titles like those teams have done.
Kentucky had been to five straight bowl games from 2006-2010 before dipping to a 5-7 finish last season that included a rare season-ending win over Tennessee. Yet even during UK’s record straight five bowl seasons, the Wildcats were only 36-29 overall and never won more than eight games. In the other five years during the last 10-year period, UK was 21-37 (including 7-5 in 2002 when it was not bowl eligible because of NCAA probation). That leaves the Cats with a 57-66 mark the last 10 years and not a single season when it really challenged for a SEC title.
But why not? That’s a question I posed on vaughtsviews.com recently and got some interesting feedback from a former UK standout.
“The short answer is it’s practically impossible to get high caliber talent to come play football at Kentucky. All the talent is from states where there are elite football programs. How do you get someone in Georgia to say, “I’m not going go to Georgia or Auburn. I’d rather go to UK.” It will rarely happen.
“Truth is (coach) Joker (Phillips) is fighting an uphill battle. Coach (Rich) Brooks got lucky with in-state talent in (Andre) Woodson, (Jacob) Tamme, (Corey) Peters and (Keenan) Burton. And some low rated prospects turned out great with (Jeremy) Jarmon and Myron (Pryor) and Trevard (Lindley). Look at Randall Cobb. He was such a blessing for the program, but if Tennessee was on him earlier he probably would have been a Vol.”
The former player asked not to be identified because he did not want to be viewed as being disloyal to UK or Phillips, who helped recruit him and was a major reason he came to Kentucky.
But he also wants UK football fans to understand that Phillips’ 6-7 and 5-7 marks in two years as head coach following Brooks are not disasters by Kentucky standards. He remembers a family member asking him if he got the head coaching job at Kentucky and then got an offer from an Alabama or LSU, what would he do.
“I like Kentucky in my heart and I would want to say no, but I would not see how you can say not. That got me to thinking about other sports teams doing well. If it was any other sport – I could see how it could happen at UK. But with football there are so many different pieces and when you look at the talent produced by the state most years, it’s not good. Even in a good year it is not like any other SEC state,” the player said.
He noted how Alabama coach Nick Saban is regarded as a “great coach” but that he recruits top talent that turns into first-round NFL draft picks.
“He does a great job preparing his players, but he’s getting the cream of the crop. You don’t get that in football at Kentucky,” the player said. “How do you get those kids? Honestly, for the life of me I don’t see how. Even a top kid in state, what would keep him from leaving for better weather down South and more established programs? How do you go into Alabama and recruit top five players? How do you beat Georgia or Auburn for players in their state? It’s almost impossible to get five-star players, even four-star players, to leave and come to UK.”
He feels Louisville’s rise under coach Charlie Strong gives UK an even “bigger uphill battle” against SEC teams.
“Look, our best recruiter, Tee Martin, comes and does a great job. No argument about that. But he gets an offer at USC and what did you expect him to do. I do not say he’s a traitor. If someone comes to Kentucky and does really well, you do not expect him to be there long unless it is somebody like Joker that is a Kentucky guy.”
“I want to stay positive. I am not saying Kentucky can’t win eight or nine games. But I just don’t see Kentucky reaching the level of success some other SEC teams do. People can talk about coaching and facilities, but the recruiting base is the problem and always will be. And when you go out of state, Joker can come in and say you will be our starting linebacker and we can go to the Chick-fil-A Bowl or Outback Bowl. Saban says we are going to redshirt you and after that you will help us win a national championship. So what do you do?
“Look at Kentucky basketball. Four straight No. 1 recruiting classes with players from all over the country. SEC basketball teams can’t compete with that. It’s the same way for UK football.”