Sports

Leaving early hardly a sin

Thanks to Rich Brooks, we find ourselves reflecting on what it means to be a good University of Kentucky football fan.

Ever since the late-game heroics of Mike Hartline and Randall Cobb — coming well after a sell-out crowd had become a half-empty stadium — gave Kentucky a stirring 21-20 win against Arkansas Saturday night, it's fashionable to tee off on the tens of thousands of UK backers who left early.

To which I say balderdash.

At his Monday news conference, Brooks was asked if he understood why so many had hit the exits well before the game ended.

"After the last two years, I don't," Brooks said, referring to Kentucky's back-to-back, eight-win seasons that were filled with comeback wins. "But that's their prerogative."

As someone whose ethic is never to depart a sporting event early, I still don't blame those who left early Saturday one iota.

Reason One. Deep into the Arkansas game, Kentucky's offense was into its second straight week looking deader than Rasputin.

UK never came close to scoring a touchdown in its final two quarters against South Carolina. The Cats didn't score in the first half against Arkansas.

After such a stretch, there's not a lot of reason to think a team trailing 20-7 inside the game's final five minutes is going to rally.

Reason Two. It was cold, and a brisk wind blowing made it feel colder. Sitting on Commonwealth's metal bleachers on such a night can make one's posterior feel like a Popsicle.

Meeting with the media Monday, Brooks was in an expansive mood, expounding on what he sees as excessive negativity that continues to surround Kentucky football.

He had examples.

That the phrase Bluegrass Miracle refers to a play made by LSU in a game Kentucky lost strikes Brooks as negative.

"You'd think the Arkansas game Saturday night might be better termed the Bluegrass Miracle," Brooks said.

That local call-in shows are far more lively after Kentucky losses than UK wins strikes Brooks as negative.

"What our team has been trying to do is change the culture of Kentucky football and I think we're doing that," Brooks said. "Some people don't get it."

There is considerable evidence that, at long last, a New Kentucky really is being born in college football.

UK is 18-8 in its last 26 games. Included in that stretch are victories over LSU, Georgia, Clemson and Florida State and back-to-back wins over Louisville and Arkansas.

Eight times during this 26-game stretch, Kentucky has rallied to win after trailing in the fourth quarter. A ninth time, the Cats pulled out a victory at Vanderbilt after being tied in the final period.

That is not your father's Kentucky football.

At five wins, UK is achingly close to being bowl eligible for a third straight season.

Talk all you want about bowl proliferation and 12-game schedules, that would be a genuinely historic achievement for a school that hasn't played in three consecutive post-season games since Bear Bryant's days.

I'm not sure the UK fan base fully appreciates the magnitude of that.

Lumping the fans and local media together, Brooks suggested that too much time this season has been spent critiquing UK's offense and not enough keeping an eye on that big picture.

"I'm thrilled we're sitting here picking away at every little thing on our team and we're 5-2," the Kentucky coach said. "Four years ago, people would've been shooting off fireworks at 5-2, but not now."

I'm not sure that even a coach, like Brooks, in his sixth year in Lexington can fully understand why many UK football fans are slow to fully embrace hope.

Across decades, UK football hasn't just been bad. It's featured a penchant for losing games in ways that reach into your chest and rip your beating heart out.

The Long-Suffering UK Football Fan is like the person who has had a succession of romantic relationships go bad: They have a real hard time putting their heart on the line again.

Part of the reason, I think, Kentucky fans have been so agitated over the performance of a rebuilding offense is that deep in their fandom DNA are scars from the tenuous football success here in Lexington.

So I don't buy the argument that Saturday night's early exodus shows that UK fans aren't authentic football backers. Nor do I believe that it showed what a basketball school Kentucky, at its core, really is.

I've been in Rupp Arena in the second half in contests in which the UK basketball team appeared well beaten. The congestion of human traffic scurrying out of Rupp while play continues looks like the cars on Nicholasville Road during rush hour.

Those who left early Saturday paid a steep price. They missed a UK comeback for the ages.

But exiting a football game prematurely on a cold night when the home team has played poorly and seems headed for certain defeat is hardly unpardonable.

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