Not Your Father’s Wildcats!
By Dr. John Huang
(ORLANDO, Fl.) — Okay, admit it. During that dark bleak stretch back in early November, you thought Kentucky was done. The football team had just suffered consecutive soul-draining losses within a seven-day span. From the adrenaline spike of the showdown with Georgia to the inexplicable no-show against Tennessee, BBN was solemnly preparing for the distinct possibility of a disappointing end to another ho-hum season.
What a difference a couple of months can make as the Wildcats responded with surprising vim and vigor. Truth be told, the 27-24 Citrus Bowl victory over Penn State punctuated one of the most successful campaigns ever. The first ten-win season in 41 years, the first New Year’s Day Bowl victory since the 1952 Cotton Bowl, and the first Florida bowl win ever are prominent notches on the belt of gridiron respectability. Throw in five consecutive conference wins against South Carolina, four straight against Missouri, a busted 31-game losing streak to Florida, a dominating showing over a perennially strong Mississippi State program, and the victory over the Nittany Lions—and Coach Mark Stoops might want to consider an immediate run for governor. Coming off three straight bowl appearances—Gator, Music City, and Citrus—together with recurrent top 30 recruiting classes should keep Wildcat football fortunes on a meteoric rise.
If you’re looking for positive trends, consider this. Kentucky has tied or improved its record every season since Stoops became head coach in 2013. They’re the only team in the country to have accomplished that feat in the past six seasons. The Wildcats had five wins this season over teams that won at least eight games (Florida, Mississippi State, Missouri, Middle Tennessee, and Penn State) and two additional wins over teams that played in bowl games (South Carolina and Vanderbilt). Kentucky ended up 7th nationally in scoring defense, 19th in pass defense, and 23rd in total defense.
Individually, Josh Allen was 2nd in the nation with 17 sacks and 6th in tackles for loss with 21.5. Benny Snell was number 6 in the nation with 1,449 rushing yards and 9th in the nation with 16 touchdowns on the year. Suffice it to say, it was a heck of a year.
Coach Stoops has talked frequently in the past about the difficulty of changing the culture of Kentucky Football. We’ve all heard him opine endlessly over the years about kicking down doors and building the program brick by brick. Smash mouth football was what he longed for, and these players he recruited ultimately fit the bill.
“As I mentioned many times, it’s really easy to change the climate of a program,” he said to reporters at the postgame press conference. “Culture is deep, deep, deep rooted for a long, long period of time. And, you know, it takes a lot to overcome and change that. And these guys did that. And, yes, by finishing games with a physicality and finding a way to win rather than finding a way to lose is changing the culture, and it comes with being physical. There’s no getting around it. It is what it is. You look at the top programs and you look around the country and, you know, it’s built on physicality.”
But that’s only one aspect of culture change. Anyone following the program realizes that besides recruiting bigger, faster, and more physical athletes, there’s also a social, interpersonal, and relational aspect of culture change permeating the program. The team rallied around the tragic death of four-year-old fan Marco Shemwell, and the health-related challenges faced by Coach John Schlarman and linebacker Josh Paschal galvanized the team internally. The hiring of Freddie Maggard as director of player development added exponentially to the building of character and culture within the UK Football family.
“These guys (the players) will tell you they’re always welcome in my house, and they are,” Stoops answered when I asked him about the perception of a family culture within the team. “And they are like sons to me and they know that. They know how I feel about them and that’s the way I’ve always done as a coach. You know, I’m in this position to help these guys get theirs and do what they’re doing.”
With his wife and sons sitting in the front row, and his brother, Bob, looking on, it was a “feel good” family moment for Coach Stoops, as well as for UK Football fans everywhere. The old has gone, the new has come. Culture change has arrived in the Bluegrass.
Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com. For the latest developments on University of Kentucky sports, be sure to follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.