John Clay: Compass Bowl was excellent wake-up call for Cats

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJuly 24, 2011 

Because it is summer and oppressively hot I ensconced myself inside my four walls, pressed the DVD player's on button and watched a copy of the BBVA Compass Bowl, of which I had managed to avoid in its entirety over the past six months.

The day of the Pittsburgh-Kentucky grid face-off, I was riding in a rental car down the Atlanta Highway in order to cover the UK-Georgia basketball game, the conference opener for the Cats and first in a string of unhappy road defeats for John Calipari's club. (It all turned out OK in the end, of course.)

Thanks to the magic of satellite radio, we were able to keep audio tabs on the action at Legion Field, even if the announcers — I made a point to forget their names — appeared to have little knowledge of or interest in the two teams playing on the historic, if nearly abandoned, field.

After sampling the video version this week, I found the poor broadcast team was not alone in its disinterest. Talk about a dreadful scene, with empty seats appearing to easily outnumber the occupied, with not even a blip of enthusiasm apparent in Birmingham, with the head coach-less Panthers running all over Joker Phillips' Wildcats with surprising ease.

As I watched, I was struck by a thought: This is exactly what Kentucky football needed.

I am not alone apparently, judging from the quotes I read from Hoover, Alabama, where the SEC holds its annual summer homage to all things grid and celebrates the coming green (money) harvest of another football season.

"I felt embarrassed at that game," UK linebacker Danny Trevathan told our own Jen Smith at the SEC Media Days.

Trevathan then spoke of a new commitment, of how he was now a "book worm" soaking up the details of Rick Minter's new defense. Teammates Morgan Newton and Stuart Hines echoed the sentiment, claiming the squad was now focused on doing the "extra" things necessary to navigate the wipe-out course that is SEC football.

The guess here is that the Birmingham beat-down was a painful but necessary shock to the system. Once Rich Brooks got the Big Blue locomotive out of the station, the Cats were running at a fairly comfortable speed, posting matching 8-5 marks in 2006 and 2007 before dropping off slightly to 7-6 in 2008 and 2009.

The guess here is that complacency invaded the habitat, that even under a new coach Kentucky had grown too comfortable with its bowl-per-season status, even if that bowl was on one of the lower rungs of the post-season ladder.

You only stay in the same place for so long. Failing to take the next step up, Kentucky slipped a notch down.

Next question: Will the Cats stay there?

Count me as a late Brooks believer who felt the coach was slowly improving the team's talent level, that dubbing Phillips the coach-in-waiting was sound strategy, and that the ensuing staff shake-up was a necessary reorganization in the name of better recruiting.

Then, yikes, Kentucky had but one player (Randall Cobb) taken in this year's draft, and only three Cats made the coaches' pre-season All-SEC teams, the lowest total of any conference member not named Tennessee. Even Vanderbilt had four. Meanwhile, media voters in Hoover picked Kentucky to repeat its near-regular fifth-place finish in the East.

Were I Joker, I'd instruct my troops to ignore all that. I'd engage the HD and pop in a DVD of the BBVA Compass Bowl, like it or not.

Message: Guys, we can do better than this.

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. Check out his facebook page at www.facebook.com/johnclayhl. Follow him on twitter @johnclayiv.

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