I’ve spent many a New Year’s Eve on the road. My wife loved to travel and would always use this extra holiday time off to plan for exotic family adventures. One year we’d be visiting friends and relatives in Bangkok. The next year, it was exploring the Jordanian ruins in Petra. The following year, it was sightseeing in Sydney Harbor. However exciting those experiences were, blue blood runs deep in these well-traveled veins. So on this New Year’s Eve, I’m just as excited to be headed down to Jacksonville, Florida with my brother—covering our beloved Kentucky Wildcats as they take on the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the 72nd Annual TaxSlayer Bowl. Twenty-two hours on the road for a three-hour football game is a sacrifice I’m more than willing to make to bring the action and memories to you.
Any long-suffering UK football fan knows that bowl appearances can be fleetingly few and far between. Kentucky has only played in 15 bowl games in the history of their program–11 of them in the course of my lifetime. It’s been six long years since BBN was last invited anywhere to participate in post season play, so I’m planning on fully savoring the occasion. The only other time I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a UK bowl game in person was the Music City Bowl in 2006. Kentucky beat Clemson in Nashville that night, but honestly, other than it being brutally cold, I don’t remember anything about that experience. You’d think that with the scarcity of UK Football successes, any and all of the previous bowl memories would be perpetually permanent.
I do remember the 1976 Peach Bowl and how the proverbial blue mist descended on Cat-lanta for UK’s first bowl appearance in a quarter of a century. This was the game in which Kentucky’s reputation for the best fan following in all of college football was established. Many who attended the event told me it was super fun to watch the Cats roll over North Carolina as Blue took over the Peachtree city, but it was also the coldest they had ever been sitting in a football stadium.
I also distinctly remember the two consecutive Hall of Fame Bowl appearances in ’83 and ’84. No weather issues here as I watched both of those games in the exact same position on my exact same couch in front of my exact same 19” low definition analogue Zenith TV. When Joey Worley’s 52-yard field goal sailed through the uprights to give the Cats a victory over Wisconsin, I felt for sure the program had turned the corner.
I have fleeting memories of the Cat’s return to Atlanta for the 1993 Peach Bowl and Marty Moore’s infamous fumble as UK lost this time to Clemson by a single point. It’s kind of sad that I don’t remember anything else about the game—just the fumble. I don’t remember much of Tim Couch and the 1998 Outback Bowl in Tampa either, other than Kentucky losing to Penn State.
I vaguely remember a string of Music City Bowl appearances. Didn’t we beat Florida State in 2007 when half their team was suspended? Unfortunately, I don’t recall much more than that. I’m not sure why this state of forgetfulness seems to recur so often when I try to recount all these UK Football bowl experiences. It’s not like UK Basketball where I can remember every single buzzer beater and shot clock violation on the march toward a championship. With UK Football, my usually vivid recollections just all kind of fade into a blank canvas of gridiron irrelevance, fittingly as if they were just discarded participation trophies on the display shelf to real football significance.
Regardless of how you view bowl victories or defeats, I’m savoring every single detail on this trip because any true fan knows that you’re never sure when or if Kentucky will ever go bowling again. I want to remember everything about this 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl experience. I want to remember the city of Jacksonville with its bustling downtown vibe, the multitude of eclectic bars and restaurants, and its Light Boat Parade up St Johns River. I want to remember the Friday night pep rally at Jacksonville Landing with the ridiculous turnout by True Blue fans. I want to remember the eye-popping EverBank Field—home of the Jacksonville Jaguars– with its decadent luxury suites and jacuzzi pools. I want to remember the North Florida sunshine mixing together with the 25,000 plus citizens of BBN who made the trip en masse to see their beloved Wildcats rewarded for an improbable comeback season predicated on focus and hard work. I want to forever remember the Brothers Huang celebrating with the Brothers Osborne on New Year’s Eve as fireworks over Jacksonville rang in 2017.
As much as I want to savor the total bowl experience, I’ll probably want to forget the specifics of the game itself. Kentucky laid an egg in the 33-18 defeat as Georgia Tech made a ramblin wreck of UK’s game plan. Not sure whether the Cats spent the month bowl prepping or bowel prepping as Coach Mark Stoops seemed perpetually agitated throughout the entire contest. Things certainly did not start well for Kentucky on this particular afternoon. Stephen Johnson’s fumble and the resulting Georgia Tech scoop and score in the first quarter was obviously forgettable. Don’t remind me either about Kentucky getting stuffed on fourth and one inside the Tech 5-yard line and the Yellow Jackets subsequently driving it 94 yards for a score. I desperately also want to forget the blocked punt which led to a Georgia Tech field goal right before the half, or the anemic Kentucky offense barely gaining 50 total yards in the third quarter, or how Tech controlled both sides of the line of scrimmage and bulldozed UK into submission. I want to dismiss from my mind all the personal foul penalties, chop blocks, and the numerous questionable calls by the much-maligned officiating crew. I hope to never remember the two Georgia Tech media members sitting beside me who took it upon themselves to verbally dis every single Wildcat on every single play. How are there not more media fistfights on press row?
Despite the disappointing loss, I want to remember this TaxSlayer experience–not for my own personal gratification, but because this Kentucky bowl appearance still truly represents an important significant stepping stone to the football relevance that all of BBN has been clamoring for in the past half century. A season full of positives should not be wiped out by a single sub-par outing. As Coach Stoops said in his post-game comments, “I’m very proud of the team. That’s a great group to coach. There’s a lot to build on. I’m very excited about the future.” How many times during the John Ray, or Fran Curci, or Jerry Claiborne, or Bill Curry, or Hal Mumme, or Guy Morris, or Rich Brooks, or Joker Phillips coaching regimes were we this excited about the future? Could it be that Mark Stoops will finally be the long-awaited messiah who leads our program into the rarefied air of the top SEC echelon? Many signs say “yes.” His team didn’t flinch under adversity this year, they return most of their starters next year on both sides of the ball, and the coaching staff has been recruiting like gangbusters.
However, I’ve been around the block long enough to know that with Kentucky Football, nothing is for certain. Ask me again ten years from now and I’ll tell you for sure whether this TaxSlayer Bowl experience was worth a permanent place in my UK Football memory shelf. I’m hoping it will be, but if not, I’ll just go back to reliving Aaron Harrison’s improbable heroics on the basketball court. Or better yet, maybe I’ll just spend New Year’s Eve sipping mai tais off the coast of some secluded island in the Gulf of Thailand. Whatever happens, I’m going to savor the experience. You’re more than welcome to join me. Happy New Year!
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Football Column for Nolan Group Media publications.