Ex-Cats

A decade later, UK players reflect on hard times that built bowl wins

UK head coach Rich Brooks jumped into a pile of his players after they were presented their trophy after beating Clemson University 28-20 in the Music City Bowl at LP Field in Nashville, Tn., on Dec. 29, 2006.
UK head coach Rich Brooks jumped into a pile of his players after they were presented their trophy after beating Clemson University 28-20 in the Music City Bowl at LP Field in Nashville, Tn., on Dec. 29, 2006. File

In a weekend meant to celebrate the success enjoyed by Kentucky football under Coach Rich Brooks, he and his players Friday recalled the humbling moments that helped galvanize the team.

Brooks and players from his 2006, 2007 and 2008 bowl championship teams have reunited in Lexington this week and will be recognized at halftime of UK’s game against Tennessee on Saturday.

Those on hand included Jacob Tamme, Dicky Lyons Jr., Keenan Burton and Randall Cobb. Among the tales of glory, those who spoke with the media Friday recalled the hard times, too.

 

Perhaps the lowest of those moments was the 49-0 loss at LSU in 2006. At 3-4 and coming off three straight losing seasons under Brooks, the current campaign seemed in doubt, as well.

Inexplicably, Dicky Lyons Jr. all but guaranteed a win over Mississippi State in the next game.

“I really feel like we're better. I feel like we can get our backups in,” the brash sophomore said the Monday after the bruising LSU loss. “I want to play that type of game. I want to do to them what LSU did to us.”

It was a boast that didn’t sit well with Brooks. And while the “old school” coach still doesn’t like it, he realizes now it might have been a pivotal moment.

“I think … me running around the field with him after we’d already had conditioning, and kept running and kept running and kept running and all the players sitting there watching it and they kept saying ‘Don’t let him break you! Don’t let him break you, Dicky!’ … I think it brought our team together,” Brooks said. “I thought it gave our team a purpose. And I thought it was part of the major turnaround that happened with this football team.”

Kentucky beat Mississippi State, and Lyons made an incredible finger-tip touchdown catch in the end zone that was so close it was only confirmed by instant replay. He had a career-high eight catches for 117 yards. UK went on to beat Georgia the next week and put themselves into the bowl picture.

“The Georgia win doesn’t happen without that Mississippi State win,” Brooks said. “That brought this team around and showed everybody that we can make plays when we’ve got to make them to get it done.”

Brooks coached UK from 2003 to 2009, leading the Cats to four straight bowl appearances in his last four seasons. Those included a 28-20 win over Clemson in the 2006 Music City Bowl, a 35-28 win over Florida State in the 2007 Music City Bowl and a 25-19 win over East Carolina in the 2008 Liberty Bowl.

With those victories, it’s easy to forget Brooks’ job wasn’t safe in 2005 and the beginning of 2006. He was a combined 9-26 after an opening-day blowout loss to Louisville in 2006. The whispers became shouts, but Brooks’ players supported him both in public and in private meetings with UK administrators.

“We knew, at the point we were at, it wasn’t coaching,” Burton said Friday. “What it was, was the leadership was terrible, including myself. … For him not to be the coach and let him fall on the sword? We couldn’t let that happen. … He was the man for the job.”

Brooks said he heard the “noise” then, but he didn’t know at the time that his bosses were talking with his players about how they felt.

“As I found out after the fact, I might not have been able to finish what we started if those players hadn’t responded in a very positive manner and supported me,” Brooks said Friday. “I was a little bit surprised in one sense that they did that, because I was hard on a lot of them.

“I’m very thankful. I’m very, very thankful.”

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