I agree: 'We were wrong'

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 29, 2009 

Here's the one thing you need to know about Rich Brooks' career arc at Kentucky. Before it disappeared from the Internet, the Web site www.firerichbrooks.com posted the following message:

We were wrong.

I know how they feel.

When Brooks was introduced as Guy Morriss's successor seven years ago, I thought the former University of Oregon and St. Louis Rams coach was a puzzling hire at best. For 31/2 rocky seasons, through the full brunt of Hal Mumme-era NCAA sanctions, I didn't see much on the field to alter that.

Yet if Brooks takes his intention to retire as Kentucky's head man from the 80 percent he stated after the Music City Bowl to 100 percent, he will depart Lexington as one of the coaches I've covered that I respect the most.

(From what I'm hearing, Brooks doesn't want to leave; he does want the UK administration to display some of the urgency in investing in football success it's shown in abundance recently for men's basketball).

Well before he started winning, the impressive thing about Brooks was his treatment of players.

Remember when Mumme's staff promised former Highlands two-sport star Derek Smith he could play basketball at Kentucky if he'd sign a UK football scholarship? Then once Smith got to campus, the Mumme crew pressured him not to play hoops.

To get Shane Boyd to sign with UK, the same coaching staff promised the Henry Clay quarterback he could play baseball, too.

Going into spring practice in 2004, Boyd was projected to be the starting quarterback for Brooks' second Kentucky team. Coming off a disappointing 4-8 season, the last thing Brooks needed was his quarterback on the baseball diamond.

Yet Brooks allowed Boyd to play baseball.

Keeping the promises to players by Mumme's staff seemed more important to Brooks than it had to Mumme's staff.

Brooks has made the tough decisions. When quarterback Curtis Pulley proved repeatedly unaccountable because of grade trouble and then (relatively minor) skirmishes with the law, the UK coach dismissed him from the team. This even though it removed his presumptive starting QB and, arguably, the best athlete in his program.

UK's inconsistent quarterback play the past two seasons is the direct result of that decision, but it was the right thing to do.

The coach has been fair. When a police traffic stop escalated into more serious legal trouble for wide receiver Steve Johnson, Brooks listened to his player's side of the story, believed him and backed him.

Of course, doing right by players wouldn't have counted for much had Brooks not started winning some games.

After Kentucky suffered an embarrassing 49-0 pasting at Louisiana State midway through 2006, the coach had a 12-29 mark at UK. You couldn't have found five people outside Brooks' immediate family (if there) who thought he would survive.

Yet as the midnight hour neared in 2006, a stay of execution arrived in the form of five wins.

Since that lost evening in Baton Rouge, Brooks is 27-18. Included are four bowl appearances, three bowl wins, and victories over old-line football brands Georgia (twice), Clemson, Arkansas (twice), LSU, Florida State and Auburn.

As skeptics like to note, there has been a ceiling (seven regular-season victories) on Brooks' winning at UK. He hasn't had "a Kansas goes to the Orange Bowl" breakthrough. The coach has not yet been able to end Kentucky's embarrassing losing streaks to Tennessee (25 years), Florida (23 years) and South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier (all eternity).

If you have been paying attention, the most impressive aspect of Brooks' UK tenure has been on display during the current holidays.

A Colorado newspaper wrote that former Kentucky standout and Denver Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard had not only agreed to financially sponsor a troubled teen at holiday time, but had insisted on meeting the boy to serve as a mentor.

According to a Louisville TV station, ex-UK wideout Keenan Burton, now with the St. Louis Rams, had learned about a Derby City family with two small children that had lost everything in an apartment fire. Not only had Burton donated $1,000 for the family's Christmas, he was paying their rent in a new residence for two months.

Then there was current UK star Randall Cobb, who was so moved by meeting a 13-year-old battling leukemia that he shaved his head for the Music City Bowl as an act of empathy.

The Brooks legacy at Kentucky is winning a respectable number of football games and doing so with good kids and, as far as we know, without cheating.

Whatever the coach decides to do going forward, the folks at www.firerichbrooks.com — and me — are hardly the only ones the Old Man has proven wrong.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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