Music City bowl

John Clay: A game lost, maybe a coach

Coach '80 percent' sure he won't be returning

jclay@herald-leader.com,John ClayDecember 28, 2009 

NASHVILLE — After what he called a disappointing loss to end a "disappointing" season, Rich Brooks said he thinks "maybe it's time."

In fact, after his Kentucky team's 21-13 loss to Clemson in the Music City Bowl on Sunday night here at LP Field, Brooks told first his team and then the media that he is 80 percent sure that he will not return to coach the team in 2010.

"I'm going to meet with my family," he said after finishing his seventh season at UK. "I'll make a (final) decision in four to five days."

The coach's expression of his intentions came not as an announcement, but in response to a reporter's question in the post-game press conference.

Asked why he is at 80 percent, Brooks said he wanted some time away from the season, and bowl preparations and the playing of the game, before finalizing his decision.

"I just think it might be time to turn it over to Joker," said the coach, mentioning his designated successor, assistant Joker Phillips.

It was a somber moment on what was, for the most part, a cold, charmless night.

"For me, it just kind of made the loss that much tougher to swallow," said senior defensive tackle Corey Peters when asked about the team's reaction to Brooks' news. "It's one thing for me to go out on this note, the senior class, a lot of the guys are going to get other opportunity to do other things, kind of have a chance to rebound. But finding out it was possibly the last game for him, it makes it hurt that much worse.

"You want to get the win for him, especially, being it could be possibly his last game. That's when it really hit me that it was over, and made me kind of regret a lot of things."

"I thought it was kind of hard" to hear of Brooks' possible retirement, said Randall Cobb. "He's taught me so much. Those were kind of traits I want to get from men of his status. It's going to be hard (for the team) if he does, but I'll be glad to have him back."

In the school's third trip to the Music City Bowl in four years, the Cats saw their post-season win streak stopped at three thanks to an offense that couldn't finish drives and committed a key turnover before a bundled-up crowd of 57,280.

Clemson's C.J. Spiller was named the game's MVP, but outside of a 42-yard screen pass in the first half and some late churning to run out the clock, the heralded Tigers back didn't break away from the Kentucky defense. Spiller finished with just 67 yards rushing.

But the Kentucky offense couldn't capitalize on breaks, either. After a first-quarter touchdown at the end of its first drive, Brooks' offense managed just a pair of field goals the rest of the night.

Derrick Locke was held to 64 yards rushing. Randall Cobb gained just 36 yards on 10 carries, despite a heavy dose of the Wildcat formation. Freshman quarterback Morgan Newton completed 13-for-23 passes for just 98 yards. His longest throw of the night was 17 yards.

"We couldn't finish drives," lamented Brooks.

Indeed, it felt much like the losses to South Carolina and Tennessee, games in which the Cats had chances but couldn't seal the deal.

It was a far cry from UK's first two Music City Bowls, when a potent offense carried the Cats to wins over first Clemson and then Florida State here at LP.

It wasn't the same as a year ago when Brooks' club staged a second-half comeback to beat East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl, extending Kentucky's bowl winning streak to three straight.

Now the question is whether Brooks will follow his "80 percent" feeling into a 100 percent decision.

He said he had been thinking about it for the past week, but he admitted that with the busy schedule he didn't want to set anything in stone just yet.

His 2009 club accomplished some more firsts, winning three Southeastern Conference road games for the first time since 1977, beating Georgia on the road for the first time since that season, and beating Auburn at Auburn for the first time since 1961.

But with success comes expectations, and at least a faction of Big Blue Nation grumbled that while the coach has taken the program to respectability, he hasn't moved it to the next level.

That might not explain why the BBN didn't fill up LP Field as in the previous two trips — the cold weather, two-days-after-Christmas date, and 8:30 p.m. start might have had something to do with that — but the fact that this game felt like already-covered ground surely played a role.

And Brooks himself said afterward that, despite the accomplishments, he considered the season "a disappointment," and that he felt more things could be accomplished.

Right now, Brooks says he's "80 percent" sure he won't be the coach who tries to accomplish those things, that it's time to turn over the reins.

"I'm not totally sure," he said, "but I just feel like it may be time for a change,"

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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