John Clay: Drumbeats of doom getting louder around UK football

Pessimists abound as Phillips, UK look for improvement

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 27, 2012 

Kentucky football fans have apparently had their Howard Beale moment, shouting as did Peter Finch in the 1976 Oscar-winning movie Network, "We're mad as hell and we're not going to (buy tickets) anymore."

The reported plunge in season-ticket sales shadows this 2012 Kentucky football season in more ways than one.

It is as if the buying public thinks that long before the opening credits, it knows how the movie will end.

My argument is that such drumbeats of doom have less to do with the current director/head coach Joker Phillips — although surely there is plenty of pessimism regarding the current leader — and more to do with a cumulative effect that has grown louder over the years until it is threatening to drown out the entire proceedings.

Why now?

Let us count the reasons, drumbeat by drumbeat.

■ UK has not posted a winning record in SEC play since 1977. That's going on 35 years.

■ No coach in the 132-year history of Kentucky football has lasted in the job for more than nine seasons. Not even Bear Bryant, who coached here for eight (1946-53).

■ Kentucky hasn't been to a legitimate top-tier New Year's Day bowl since the early 1950s.

■ Kentucky's recent string of five straight bowl appearances were a product of effective scheduling — a weak dose of non-conference opponents coupled with a bare-bones threshold of a mere .500 record giving a team the coveted bowl-eligible brand.

■ Kentucky couldn't even achieve that status last season.

■ Now two more quality football programs, Texas A&M and Missouri, have been added to a conference that has won six consecutive BCS titles.

Unfortunately for Kentucky, there has been little evidence of a trickle-down effect.

There's no doubt the general public thinks the program is in regression. The last two seasons ended with losing records, even if the first year did include a bowl game and the second ended in field-rushing celebration with a win over Tennessee, the program's first triumph over the hated Vols since 1984.

In 2010, Joker Phillips' first as head coach, Kentucky lost in something called the BBVA Compass Bowl to a Pittsburgh team minus a head coach because Dave Wannstedt had been fired at the end of the regular season.

This was similar to 1993 when Bill Curry's Cats lost in the Peach Bowl to a Clemson team whose head coach, Ken Hatfield, had been fired at season's end.

In Curry's next season, 1994, Kentucky went 1-10. He was fired two years later.

No one is predicting a bottoming out will happen in 2012 — OK, some are — but there is no doubt Phillips' bottom is on the cliche-ridden hot seat.

His record after two seasons is 11-14. His team lost 54-3 at South Carolina and 38-8 at Vanderbilt last season. That's right — Vanderbilt.

The media mavens attending the SEC Media Days in July coolly picked the Cats to finish seventh out of seven teams in the SEC East.

Many UK football fans are already ready for another rinse cycle.

The hopeful will tell you there are signs of life around the football complex. The last two signing classes are said to be a marked improvement over previous efforts. The coaching staff assembled by Phillips consists of solid, experienced assistants with a renewed emphasis on recruiting. There are some good, young players on the premises.

Pessimists say they have been sold those rays of sunshine before, that history proves this a program of serial shortcomings with no hope in sight.

Or at least the pessimists see no reason to spend their hard-earned dollars to watch another distressing defeat.

And there seem to be more of those pessimists than ever before.

Luckily, the games are played on the field, not in the stands.

To get those Howard Beales back, however, the Cats might be in need of a Hollywood ending.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: Johnclay.bloginky.com.

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