JOE COX: A Tale of Two Football Programs
After Kentucky’s regular season ended with a disheartening 44-17 loss to Louisville, the week following the game has been laden with grumbling throughout the Big Blue Nation. Kentucky will likely only end up in a bowl game in the state of Tennessee, and the team’s second consecutive seven-win season ends without a defining victory, and indeed with coach Mark Stoops’s defense looking especially beleaguered. But sports doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s worth looking down I-75 and thinking about another story.
In the last 10 years, the Tennessee Volunteers have posted a record of 62-63. They haven’t won an East division title, they have won only three bowl games, and they have not completed a season ranked higher than No. 22. They’ve also been through four head coaches, and were trying to hire their fifth this past weekend.
Athletic Director John Currie had apparently settled on former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano. Schiano was 68-67 at Rutgers. Of course, that ignores the fact that he inherited a morbidly bad team that went 3-20 in his first two seasons. After that, Schiano went 65-47, including five straight bowl appearances and six bowls in seven years for a program that had been the armpit of college football for much of the last few eras of college football.
Not good enough for the folks at Tennessee. To be sure, there were some troubling questions about Schiano’s time working at Penn State under noted child sex offender and former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. But most of all, there just wasn’t much pizazz. Who wanted a coach to win eight games a year? This is Tennessee.
Yeah, this is Tennessee. That brand isn’t what it once was, at least in terms of college football. An entire generation of recruits have come of age since UT last won a division title in 2007. These kids weren’t even born the last time the Vols won a conference title or a national title. The main difference they see between Tennessee and Rutgers is that Knoxville is probably mildly preferable to Jersey as a place to spend one’s college years.
Now Schiano won’t be the coach. Neither will Dan Mullen, who turned the Vols down for the Florida Gators' job. Neither will David Cutcliffe, who elected to stay at Duke rather than return to old Rocky Top. Discussion recently has centered around former Vol QB Tee Martin, who has never been a head coach and one-time Vol head man Lane Kiffin, who left the school in the lurch after one 7-6 season.
Tennessee's entire athletic department is in a meltdown. Currie may be fired. One of the school’s best options is the coach who left literally in the middle of the night eight years ago. This is a story about the gap between reality (62-63) and expectations (SEC titles/national titles/being a nationally dominant program). It’s about the danger of what can happen when the so-called fans of a program wield more power than the athletic director. And it’s scary.
Meanwhile, Kentucky has gone 53-71 over the past decade. That includes three head coaches. And after two 7-5 regular seasons, there are increasingly loud grumbles from those who want to hit “reboot” on the rebuilding job.
They must be forgetting that these are the first consecutive seven-win regular seasons since 2006 and 2007. And the first consecutive four-win SEC slates since 1998 and 1999. That Kentucky hasn’t won eight regular season games since 1984, and hasn’t approached the top of the SEC since 1977. Since that 1977 team, there has been an 0-10-1 team, a 1-10 team, and five two-win teams. Past performance indicates that the cellar is much closer than the ceiling.
None of this denies the need for due diligence in maintaining the program. None of this denies that Stoops, for a defensive guru, has often had an awful defense in the past five seasons. None of this denies that staff changes and possibly scheme changes should be on the horizon. None of this denies organizational issues which reared their head in an ugly loss to Florida that kept Kentucky from eight wins and a winning SEC mark.
But ground those expectations in reality. Kentucky football is in a historic pit the like of which is rarely seen in major college football. If progress is not recognized, soon the Wildcats could end up like Tennessee—with Alabama’s sense of entitlement and Vanderbilt’s trophy case. If 7-5 with some growing pains doesn’t seem good enough, remember that history teaches that the alternative is much more likely to be 2-10 than 10-2.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books. His most recent, Almost Perfect (a study of baseball pitchers’ near-miss attempts at perfect games) is available on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.