As we wonder what will come of the 2020 football season thanks to the havoc wreaked on our normalcy by COVID-19, football fans in Kentucky have one other reason to fret: any disruption to the 2020 season just might stall out a comeback 67 years in the making.
While the University of Kentucky has dominated year after year on the basketball court, Kentucky football fans haven’t had much to get excited about since 1953, the year good, old Paul “Bear” Bryant left for Texas A&M. After seeing the last two seasons of coach Mark Stoops’s Wildcats in action, I think that drought is about to come to an end.
It all began with a bold promise from Stoops, where he promised the crowd at his 2012 introductory press conference, “I’m highly motivated to build this program to national prominence.” Only the most optimistic of Cats fans shared that sentiment.
Stoops’s takeover of the Cats from Joker Phillips, initially, left a lot to be desired. His inaugural outing as coach, in the 2013 season, came in at 2-10 — no better than Joker’s final season in Lexington. After that, two back-to-back 5-7 seasons had many scratching their heads, wondering if we’d gone wrong — again — and why Kentucky just didn’t seem destined to rise to greatness with the pigskin.
Then things started to turn around for Stoops.
By the end of the 2016 season, Stoops had redeemed a 0-2 start for a 7-3 finish and an appearance at the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. A 7-5 season and another bowl appearance in 2017 started turning a lot of Kentucky fans’ frowns upside down, and that was before we even got to the good stuff.
The Wildcats’ 2018 season was one for the record books. Ten wins — including a victory over Florida, breaking a 31-year losing streak to the Gators. A Citrus Bowl victory over Penn State. And coach Mark Stoops was named SEC Coach of the Year, the first time a Kentucky coach had taken home that honor since Jerry Claiborne in 1983. And another honor first brought home to Kentucky by one Bear Bryant.
Alright, there’s a reason I keep bringing up The Bear. While it is hard to talk about Bear Bryant — as a Kentucky fan — without a sting of remorse, it is worth looking back in time to the “glory days” for a little perspective on Kentucky’s recent successes under coach Stoops.
The Bear moved to Lexington in 1946 to revive Kentucky’s then-dormant football program. And revive it he did, whipping the Cats into shape and tearing a hole through the Southeastern Conference to the tune of a 7-3 season. And then he kept on going.
Over eight seasons, Bear’s Wildcats landed four bowl appearances (1947 Great Lakes Bowl, 1949 Orange Bowl, 1950 Sugar Bowl, and 1951 Cotton Bowl), claimed a 1950 Southeastern Conference title, and the (historically awarded) 1950 national championship.
And then there’s that 1950 Sugar Bowl where Bryant’s Cats beat the defending national champion Oklahoma Sooners 13-7, breaking the Sooners’ 31-game winning streak. That title earned Bryant the SEC coach of the year award for 1950.
1950 was also the year Bear alleges he and basketball coach Adolph Rupp were both given gifts at an annual banquet. According to Bear, Coach Rupp was given a Cadillac. The Bear received a cigarette lighter.
The true story is Rupp was gifted a car by Kentucky boosters in 1955 (well after Bear had moved on), and there’s no record Bryant ever received a cigarette lighter from Kentucky (although he received plenty from elsewhere — and some are on display in his museum in Tuscaloosa). The Bear liked to tell that story to bring home how invested Kentucky was in its football program, and to highlight what he felt was unfair treatment by the school.
Bear took the real reason he left Kentucky with him to the grave, although he did tell fellow coaches it had to do with “promises not fulfilled.” Whatever the reasons, after eight glorious seasons, Bryant took the job at A&M, which eventually led him home to Alabama and his most famous exploits.
At Kentucky, Bryant set leadership standards that transcend both sports and business. Team building. Focus. Determination. Competitive spirit. In Kentucky, we have a name for that period: “The glory days.” And for all of us Kentucky football fans, we’d long gotten used to the idea those days are all in the past.
Now here comes Stoops.
Last season, Stoops and his Wildcats got off to a rocky start, plagued with injuries. With no one left to handle the ball, Stoops turned to Wide Receiver Lynn Bowden, Jr. to turn around a 2-3 start as QB. Five wins and two losses later, Kentucky ended the season by crushing Louisville and earning a berth in the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech.
The 2019 Belk Bowl was a squeaker, and Kentucky pulled out a win literally in the final seconds of the game, scoring the winning touchdown and going 8-5 for the season.
And that brings us back to the present.
Kentucky has written Stoops a contract that increases his salary every season, and automatically extends by a year every time Stoops wins seven games, and by two years when he wins 10. He also gets a bonus for every win more than nine games. At this point, that makes Stoops the second-longest tenured coach in the SEC, with an incredible incentive to stay the course. At a base salary in 2019 of $4.75 million, Stoops can buy his own Cadillac — and a cigarette lighter to go with it.
After an initial scare that Stoops was on the short list to take over at Florida State, it appears he’ll have at least another season in Lexington (and several more if he holds to his contract). "This is where my heart is, this is where I'm going to be," said Stoops after crushing Tennessee last season. "I'm going to be at Kentucky."
For now, it seems like Stoops is Kentucky’s man. And once again we’ve found ourselves with a team that’s been turned around from dwelling in the cellar of the SEC to taking winning seasons and bowl appearances for granted.
The only question now is: can coach Stoops maintain his momentum if the COVID-19 pandemic shortens or even cancels the season? That’s a challenge with which even Bear Bryant wasn’t tested.