After the Kentucky Wildcats posted another of their signature come-from-ahead losses a week ago yesterday, this time a 42-41 overtime defeat to an Ole Miss team they led by 14 in the third quarter, the fan base spent the week moaning, groaning, finger-pointing, whining, and lamenting their historic bad luck.
But I liked the Wildcat fan who found a silver lining in the debacle. He said he didn’t mind the loss too much because at least it restored a sense of normalcy to his life in these strange and twisted times. It did, indeed. Through times flush and lean, through all sorts of wars and economies, you always could count on UK football to disappoint.
Of course, there have been exceptions. Generally, however, UK fans have come to expect the worse and usually get it. That’s why former coach Bill Curry called them “the fellowship of the miserable.” Since Paul “Bear” Bryant left Lexington after the 1953 season, only his immediate successor, the underappreciated Blanton Collier, has posted a winning record for his UK career.
After last night’s victory at home against Mississippi State, current head coach Mark Stoops has a 45-46 record to show for his seven-plus seasons on the sidelines in Lexington. This puts him in third place among all UK head coaches since Bernie Shively coached a 2-8 team in 1945. Bryant tops the list with 60 wins (against 25 losses and five ties) for his eight years as UK, and Fran Curci is second with 47 wins (against 51 losses and two ties), meaning that Stoops is only two wins away from tying him.
After opening with records of 2-10, 5-7, and 5-7, Stoops had put together a string of four winning seasons – 7-6, 7-6, 10-3, and 8-5—heading into this strange season truncated by the Coronavirus pandemic.. Playing only Southeastern Conference competition, the Wildcats figure to beat Missouri and Vanderbilt, but have little chance to beat Tennessee in Knoxville, Georgia at home, Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and Florida at Gainesville.
South Carolina in the season finale in Lexington is a possible win for the Cats, but the Gamecocks probably will be favored.
If that’s the way it plays out, UK would end the season with a 3-7 record and Stoops would be 47-53 for his career, but he at least would tie Curci for second place on the all-time victory list.
I think Stoops has done a good job in the areas of recruiting and practice coaching. But I dislike the way he acts on the sidelines during games. He can’t let go of bad calls against UK, frequently still jawing at an official five or six plays later. At times, he runs around like a chicken with its head cut off, looking in vain for something or somebody. His assistants are constantly trying to get him to calm down and get his head into the game.
To his credit, I guess, UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart has never wavered in his support of Stoops, the man he hired to replace Rich Brooks after the 2012 season. But Barnhart may soon be fielding questions about whether Stoops is the man to take UK to the top level of college football.
I suppose Barnhart could say that Stoops already has done that, but I’m not convinced. He was the defensive coordinator at Florida State when Barnhart hired him, and he always seems to put a better defense than offense on the field. But these days fans like pass-happy coaches who are like, well, former UK coach Hal Mumme (20-26-0 from 1997-2000). Mumme tolerated defensive football, but he really didn’t care how much the opponent scored as long as UK scored more.
This season UK’s strength offensively has been the running game more than its passing attack, although the Wildcats strive for balance with sprint-out quarterback “Touchdown Terry” Wilson. He has played better than his receivers, who sometimes develop a serious case of butterfingers at just the wrong time.
If UK hasn’t yet reached a crossroads, one may be coming soon. Should they be content with Stoops Ball? Or will they gamble on trying something new and different? The fellowship of the miserable will be watching closely.