Mike Hartline always wanted to be good.
"There's a difference between wanting to be good," Randy Sanders, Kentucky's offensive coordinator, said Wednesday, "and having a burning desire to be good."
Mike Hartline burned to be good.
He burned to be good when he arrived as a gangly freshman from North Canton, Ohio. He burned to be good as a sophomore when he found himself the successor to Andre Woodson as Kentucky's starting quarterback. He burned to be good when he was benched in favor of Randall Cobb, when he won the job back as a junior only to be booed then injured.
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He burned to be good when the coaches declined to crown him starter this past spring, and he heard the cries for Morgan Newton or Ryan Mossakowski to be UK's starter in the fall.
"He won the job when many didn't think he was deserving of the job," head coach Joker Phillips recalled this week. "But we knew; he was deserving of the job."
Then, in his do-or-die year, his fifth year, his senior year, the burning desire erupted into a fire.
"He's played as good as anybody in the league," said Phillips.
Indeed, as we approach Senior Day at Commonwealth Saturday, there may not be another player in University of Kentucky football history who has had as many critics and detractors, only to be proven wrong, as Mike Hartline.
"It was more along the lines of proving to myself that I can be the best player that I can be," the quarterback said Tuesday. "That I can reach my potential if I work hard and stay at it, and stay disciplined."
After all, he wasn't even supposed to be Kentucky's quarterback. In the fans' eyes, that was always supposed to be someone else. In 2008, that was Curtis Pulley. In 2009, it was Randall Cobb or an either/or of true freshmen Newton or Mossakowski.
This year, it was supposed to be Newton, who led UK to a 5-2 record in Hartline's absence the year before. Only Hartline played better in the spring, cemented the job in the fall, and has never let go.
He leads the SEC in touchdown passes with 21, is second in passing yards per game with 267.4, is sixth in pass efficiency with a 147.9 rating, and is third in total offense at 264 yards per game.
"The only thing I want to change is just the record," he said Tuesday. "More wins."
Ah, but the development of Hartline's toughness, tenacity and maturity goes beyond the wins.
"Probably the greatest thing he's done is tune out the criticism and the negativity and everything else and kept trying to do what we're asking him to do," Sanders said. "That's the big fear you have as a coach when a guy is in that situation — that's he's going to go out and try and do too much and prove everybody wrong."
Instead, Hartline has done just the right amount. His shining moment came against South Carolina. That night, the senior threw for 349 yards and four touchdowns to lead UK from a 28-10 halftime deficit to a 31-28 win.
Not that it's over, mind you. Kentucky can clinch bowl eligibility with a win over Vanderbilt on Saturday. It can snap a 25-game losing streak to Tennessee with a win at Knoxville in two weeks.
And Hartline is smart enough and seasoned enough to know those cheers can easily return to jeers.
"You know that if you don't play decent or better than you did the last week, it's going to go back to the way it used to be," he said Tuesday. "I have no doubt about that."
But there should be no doubt about this, either, that Hartline's Senior Day story is a triumphant one.
"From day one, Mike has come in and when I've told him something he's responded to it and tried to do what I've asked him to do," Sanders said. "It's fun to coach a guy that when you talk about something, you work on something, and then you see it happen."
And, "He handles himself the way you want a guy to handle it."
In the end, it was Mike Hartline's critics who got burned.
Hartline vs. UK's best QBs
Career statistics for UK quarterbacks who have thrown for at least 4,000 yards:
Comp. Att. Yards TD Int. Pct. YPA Rating
Couch 795 1184 8435 74 35 .672 7.12 141.7
Woodson 791 1278 9360 79 25 .619 7.32 139.9
Parilli 331 592 4351 50 37 .559 7.35 133.0
Lorenzen 862 1514 10354 78 41 .569 6.84 126.0
Hartline 477 788 5176 36 24 .605 6.57 124.7
Ransdell 469 816 5564 22 29 .575 6.82 116.5
Norton 298 598 4514 26 44 .498 7.55 112.9
Jenkins 363 699 4148 24 53 .519 5.93 97.9