Changing attitudes key for Brooks

August 17, 2003|TOM LEACH

Two seconds from a head-turning victory over LSU, the Kentucky football team failed to deliver the knockout blow. What came to be known as "The Bluegrass Miracle" was also voted play-of-the-year at the ESPY Awards this summer, but for Big Blue fans, it became another entry in an all-too-sorriful book of gridiron "almosts."

It was that great philosopher Roy McAvoy (Kevin Costner's character in the movie "Tin Cup") that said, "You define the moment or the moment defines you." The challenge for this and future UK football teams is to not let such moments define them as some kind of "woe is me, it's-just-not-meant-to-be" kind of football program. I guarantee Rich Brooks doesn't want to hear that kind of talk.

"Other than the facilities, that was the biggest obstacle I had to overcome at Oregon, the downtrodden attitude," Brooks said. "Everybody says they want to win but some of them accept losing easier and accept a mistake as a 'here we go again' attitude and that can't be acceptable."


"It's the same way with the fans. A lot of them come in with the expectation level that we really can't beat Florida or Tennessee and they hope it's (just) a decent game. I want people to be upset if we don't beat them, because I'm damn well going to be upset."

I remember Cawood Ledford once telling me that the difficulty of the Kentucky football job was overrated - because the expectations weren't high enough. And he made sense. I also recall the encouragement some UK fans, and perhaps players and coaches felt, when the Wildcats almost upset Florida in 1993. Instead, they should have been livid at not winning a game in which the defense provided seven interceptions - in Commonwealth Stadium no less.

The bar of expectations in year one is set high for Brooks because last year's team won seven games. On the other hand, you know many fans are looking at this year's schedule like they always do - penciling in certain W's over Ohio, Vandy and Murray State and expected losses to the likes of Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Dirty Harry said "a man's got to know his limitations." But football coaches don't want their players to think that way because one of the first keys to beating the so-called big boys is believing that it's not an accident if you do.

There's not a whole lot Brooks can do other than win to change the mindsets of fans, but he has more control over what his players believe.

"You've got to convince them that it is going to be different," he said. "It's like when I tell them that we're not going to lose games in the fourth quarter because we're out of condition and they better learn to accept that's part of it. The other part is you bring in other players that are new to the program that don't know you're supposed to lose. It may not happen overnight, but it will happen."

Brooks speaks confidently because he oversaw a similar transformation at Oregon. The UK program has a lot more going for it than Oregon did in the 1970's, when USC-UCLA was "THE GAME" in the Pac-10.

"Just because it has been that way, it doesn't have to stay that way. We had the Oregon-Oregon State game be 'THE' game and nobody would have ever dreamed that could happen, that they had (those two teams) deciding who was going to the Rose Bowl," Brooks said.

Some say Kentucky has tried every approach when it comes to football coaches. Successful head coach (Bill Curry, Jerry Claiborne), hot defensive coordinator (John Ray), offensive guru (Hal Mumme), disciplinarian (Charlie Bradshaw), charismatic leader (Fran Curci), great x-and-o man (Blanton Collier), nuts-and-bolts football man (Guy Morriss).

But in Brooks, UK has found yet another quality and it's one that might just fit this program quite well. Brooks took over a dreadful football program at Oregon and built it into a winner in a big-time conference. Then, he passed the torch to an assistant who has sustained that success.

So how does he go about making lightning strike again in Kentucky?

"What we have to do is manage the whole process. By that I mean we have to do a great job of evaluating and recruiting, we have to do a great job of coaching and then we have to change attitudes of players and some fans who believe we can't line up against Georgia and Tennessee and Florida and beat them," Brooks said. "We have to get the attitude to where people expect it instead of saying, when something goes wrong, 'here we go again.'"

One thing Brooks does have going for him at Kentucky - a strong passion for football that is often underrated by observers outside of the commonwealth.

"I really think the people here are football-strong. They just haven't had consistent success," Brooks said. "I'm in a fortunate position to be coming in with a new president and a new athletics director and football is very important to them. They want to see success in the football program.

"The fan support, I'm amazed and impressed with the loyalty and I can't tell you how many people I've met around the state who've come up and said to me, 'I love Kentucky basketball but I'm really a big football fan (too).'"

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