Kentucky’s upcoming appearance in the VRBO Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day is cause for celebration. By that, I’m not talking about a festive little soiree with cupcakes and ice cream. I’m talking a real CELEBRATION—an over the top blowout bash complete with champagne and chateaubriand. Because for the first time in my lifetime, the Wildcats are playing in a significant New Year’s Day Bowl game—looking for an elusive 10-win season against a big-time, brand name opponent.
I’ll admit it—I’m older than the burial ground dirt underneath Commonwealth Stadium. As far as UK Football is concerned, I’ve been following them since I was ten years old. That means I’ve been through 50 seasons, 13 bowl games, 9 head coaches, and more losses than I care to count. I saw my first game as a starry-eyed nine-year-old from the end zone bleachers at Stoll Field watching Joe Federspiel chase down opposing quarterbacks. Now I spend my time watching as a grizzled graybeard from the stratosphere of the Kroger Field press box. Through it all, I’ve seen headache and heartache, last-second defeats snatched from the jaws of victory, rotten execution, bad luck, bad calls, bone-headed penalties, and coaching blunders bordering on malpractice.
But that’s all water under the bridge because after five decades, the Wildcats are finally headed to Orlando, playing Penn State in the Citrus Bowl as a reward for one of the best seasons in school history. With that in mind, I thought it would be a perfect time to reflect—with the benefit of fifty years of hindsight—to share with readers three important things I’ve learned during my time following the Cats.
1) It really is about the Jimmies and Joes rather than Xs and Os. I don’t care if it’s the wide tackle six or the air raid. When you look at all of Kentucky’s successful seasons since the late sixties, the one common denominator is that they had star players during those winning runs—not only stars on the football field, but high character team leaders that commanded respect from their fellow teammates. You want to go 10-1 and be ranked in the top ten in ‘77? Then let Derrick Ramsey play quarterback. Is the Outback Bowl your destination in ‘99? Recruit Tim Couch and Craig Yeast. Upset the number one team in the land in ‘07? Jacob Tamme, Keenon Burton, Wesley Woodyard, and Andre’ Woodson are up for the task. Play in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day against the likes of Penn State in ‘19? Benny Snell, Jr. and Josh Allen will get you there. It’s no secret—great athletes make for successful programs. I’m not saying coaching doesn’t matter, but the ability to recruit star athletes is now what separates the wheat from the chaff. Having a Marks Stoops and a Vince Marrow continually being able to attract SEC-caliber talent to the Bluegrass is the most significant change I’ve witnessed in the program to date and bodes extremely well for the direction of UK’s football future.
2) Kentucky Football fans crave winning. The Wildcats are known as a basketball school, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about football. In fact, it’s just the opposite—I’ve frequently sensed that the football fan base is every bit as passionate as their basketball brethren. It’s just that losing begets frustration, and frustration stifles enthusiasm. Even with all their two-win seasons, last-second meltdowns, and fumbles into futility, UK Football fans are resilient to a fault—they keep getting up even after getting punched in the face. Give those long-suffering fans that one magical season, and you’ll experience every bit of the excitement, exuberance, and energy usually reserved for a hardwood Final Four run. Just watch—you can bet BBN will descend into Central Florida this year, coating Mickey and Minnie with a blue mist the likes of which Orlando has yet to see.
3) It pays to be in the SEC. I’m not talking just sharing the bowl game payouts—but rather the prestige, power, and prominence of playing in the nation’s best conference. The Cats have come close to bolting on at least a few occasions, but selling your birthright for a chance at a couple of extra wins never made sense to me. Playing Big Boy Football is a privilege, and a tremendous recruiting advantage. To be the best, you must play the best. Trust me on this one—watching Kentucky being able to go up against the likes of Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida every single year is a lot more enjoyable than whipping up on Akron or Murray. It also keeps the program relevant, even in years when we stink. To say Kentucky is an SEC school—IT JUST MEANS MORE!
For BBN, it’s already been a heck of a season. A Citrus Bowl win over the Nittany Lions will just be icing on the cake. This team deserved it. Our fan base earned it. Now it’s time to party like never before! See you in Orlando.
Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/
Check out his most recent Cincinnati Bengals and other professional sports coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang