John Clay

Opener may offer clues to ending

At 3:30 p.m., we begin learning what comes after the prefix re-.

Will it be rebuild?

Or reload?

If archrival Louisville thumps Kentucky at Papa John's, UK football fans will face their deepest pre-season fear, that the happy days of consecutive bowl victories are a thing of the past, that a major rebuilding job is the face of the future.

(Never mind that it's one game — fans are rarely level-headed enough to rationalize anything as just-one-game.)

But if the Cats are able to apply a bruise to the Birds up the road, then maybe there are worthy replacements for all those major personnel losses, maybe this is one of those rare years when Kentucky football can actually do what the big boys do, i.e. reload.

History sides with the former, of course. But for a non-native, Rich Brooks sure knows much about Kentucky football's past foibles — and he has been equally adept at turning them on their ears.

Still, go back to 1983-84. Jerry Claiborne was the coach. Kentucky achieved back-to-back bowls. The Cats lost the old Hall of Fame Bowl, in Birmingham, in 1983 to West Virginia. They returned to the very same bowl the next year to knock off Wisconsin, setting up great expectations for 1985.

But the underrated running back George Adams was no longer around. Neither was punter/safety/big play-maker Paul Calhoun. The Cats opened with a 30-26 upset loss to Bowling Green at Commonwealth Stadium. It was downhill from there. UK limped home 5-6, the first of four consecutive five-win seasons.

Fast forward to 1993. Bill Curry was the coach. It was his fourth year in Lexington, his best year. The Cats went 6-5 in the regular-season, then lost a 14-13 heartbreaker to Clemson in the Peach Bowl. Yet there was hope that after three trying campaigns, Curry had managed to right the ship.

And then it sank. Quarterback Pookie Jones opted to play baseball full-time. Middle linebacker Marty Moore, the heart and soul of the defense, graduated. The Cats opened with a 20-14 win over Louisville in the rivals' first meeting in 70 yards. They lost their next 10, then the first two of the 1995 season.

By the middle of the 1996 campaign, Athletic Director C.M. Newton decided that it was time for Curry to turn the rebuilding job to someone else.

That brings us to Hal Mumme, who piloted the Cats to back-to-back bowl games in 1998-99. Tim Couch and Co. lost to Penn State in the Outback Bowl at the end of the '98 season. Dusty Bonner and Co. lost to Syracuse in the Music City Bowl at the end of '99.

High hopes greeted 2000. Never mind that leading receiver James Whalen had graduated. Never mind that underrated running back Anthony White had graduated. Turns out, the Cats should have minded. Louisville beat UK 40-34 in overtime in an opener so draining, Mumme set off a post-game firestorm with his sour grapes comment that the game didn't really mean that much anyway.

By the end of the year, the Cats were 2-9 and, with probation on the horizon, Mumme was out after having all but burned the building to the ground.

After the two-year Guy Morriss Era, it has taken five years for Rich Brooks to build his program to this point. The coach believes his roster is flush with overall talent, especially on defense, and that there is enough ability on offense to make up for the multiple marquee losses of Andre Woodson, Rafael Little, Kennan Burton, Steve Johnson and Jacob Tamme.

But no one knows for sure.

"I'm looking as much forward to it as you probably are to see how they do," said the coach earlier in the week.

Looking forward to seeing what comes after the re-.