Kicking it with Rich Brooks, Part 2
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
|Mark Zerof/US Presswire|
|Coach Rick Brooks thinks Kentucky can hang with anyone in the SEC.|
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- How much better has Kentucky gotten under Rich Brooks? More specifically, how much better has the talent gotten under Brooks? When he took the job in 2003, the Wildcats had one player who could consistently run under a 4.5 40-yard dash. Now, they have somewhere around 20. This year's team is probably going to have to lean on the defense more than it ever has under Brooks, who thinks the Wildcats finally have enough talent and depth on that side of the ball to hold their own against anybody they play in the SEC. The Wildcats open the season on Aug. 31 at Louisville, a game that will be critical in their quest to run their bowl streak to three straight years. After the opener comes three straight games at home against Norfolk State, Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky and then the SEC opener at Alabama. Brooks' message to the Big Blue Nation is that he has no intention of going back to where he found this program. The prognosticators are picking the Wildcats to fall off this season. Brooks ain't buying it. Here's the second part of my Q&A with Brooks, one of the more underrated coaches in the country:
How much has it registered with you that you guys have a chance this season to do something that hasn't been done at Kentucky since Bear Bryant was here?
Rich Brooks: To me, the key is making it happen a third year in the postseason and not missing for eight years or 10 years or 15 years like Kentucky's been missing. I truly believe that we have enough talent on this team that we should be a very good team. Based on what I've seen in the predictions, I think we're much better than that. I understand why those predictions are made, because when you look at our schedule, Kentucky historically against some of the teams we play ... we haven't beaten them very often. But we've pecked away the last couple of years, and I think that's going to continue this year.
Have you pretty well accomplished what you set out to do when decided to take on this challenge?
RB: I think this year is going to be a big step in answering that question. If we can have a winning season again this year and get to postseason play, then I'll say, 'Yeah, I think I've accomplished what I came here to do.'
You initially started off as sort of a consultant for Kentucky officials when they were searching for candidates after Guy Morriss bolted, right?
RB: I told them the second or third conversation that, 'Hey, if you get to the bottom of your list and you're not happy with it, if you're interested, then I'd be willing to talk to you about the job.' Lo and behold, on Christmas Eve, they wanted to talk to me, so I guess their last true option went bye-bye. And there were quite a few that went bye-bye.
Did you have friends and colleagues tell you that you were crazy to be taking this job at this point in your career?
RB: No, not really. I knew the history. What I saw when I came here was that I was surprised where this was compared to where Oregon was when I went to Oregon. We had pretty much a full stadium, very good facilities and the wherewithal financially to do what we wanted to do. Plus, Kentucky sits in an area that if you want to get in a car and drive 10 hours, you can get into about two-thirds of the population of the United States. You're surrounded by a lot of good football players. I felt just like a lot of other guys that had come through here that, 'Golly, you should be able to get it done here.'
Aren't you an example of why an administration has to give a coach time, at least four or five years, to prove that he can get a program on the right track?
RB: There were very few who thought I'd be back (after his fourth season). But when you commit to a coaching change, you have to let it play out a little bit unless you see just disaster after disaster after disaster. There were a lot of reasons that disasters could have happened to us and did happen to us, because of what we were going through with the scholarship limitations and the negativity surrounding another probation. We were getting better players, but it wasn't evident until two years ago. A lot of those players played probably before they should have and played younger than they should have and took some lumps. By the time we got enough of those good players together, it started to pay off.
How close were you to not surviving?
RB: I don't think I would have been here had we not had the season we did in 2006. In my mind, I was very fortunate to get to that year, because there was a lot of negativity and fan unrest and pressure to go get some big-name coach who would come in and wave the magic wand. To get to the fourth year was the critical thing. Once we got to the fourth year, we showed that we were capable, even after the disaster at LSU (a 49-0 loss). Anybody that watched and knows anything about football could see we were getting better players.
Your offensive coordinator, Joker Phillips, has already been named as your replacement. Are you pretty close to walking away and handing it over to him?
RB: I don't know. One of the reasons we did that was that every year I've been a head coach, I was either getting ready to be fired or getting ready to retire, one way or the other. What I wanted to do was dispel anything on the recruiting front that, 'Gee, if you go there, who are you going to be playing for? Or they may switch and run the wishbone.' We're having some success in recruiting, more success than we've had, because of what we've shown the young recruits we're doing on offense and defense, and they like it.
Has this been as fulfilling as anything you've done in your coaching career, to get this program to a point where nobody really thought possible?
RB: I don't take a lot of time to reflect on things like that. To me, if I can do it again this year, if we can get this thing and go to postseason play again this year ... I would say that would be a pretty damn good feeling. But what we've done the last two years seems like it's 20 years ago already. It's what we're doing now that counts.
Why are so many NFL coaches coming back to the college ranks, and was it tough for you to leave the NFL in 2000?
RB: I was in the NFL in the 70s for four years as a young assistant. It was a great job. You didn't have recruiting. You didn't have fund-raising. You didn't have academics. You just coached football. You didn't have free agency in the offseason in those days. In those days, you didn't evaluate talent. Your scouting department did. You had a normal life in the offseason. Now, the NFL is a 12-month-a-year deal. We went to the Super Bowl, and usually you get a week off. We were told you got one day and then to come in and we had to get into free agency evaluations. After evaluating them, you recruit them and then go to the combine and then they send you out on the road to work out the guys you've already seen work out at the combine. You have to write up reports and then you have mini-camps and then the passing camps. You have no down
time. Depending on who you're working for, some people give you a month off in July. but coach (Dan) Reeves only gave us two weeks off, and there was a weekend of mini-camps in between. I just got burned out and decided, 'I don't need this anymore.'
Any theories on why coaches like Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier that had great success in the SEC didn't pan out in the NFL?
RB: A guy like Saban and Spurrier come from very successful (college) programs where they had total control of most everything that happened and then they went into a situation where they didn't have total control. They may tell you that you do going in, but you don't. You've got the general manager, the owner, the college personnel guy, the pro personnel guy, and they're all in their own little power plays. It's a different environment, and it's all football. But there's also a lot of politics in the NFL. There's not as much politics in college football, and you have more people pulling the wagon in the same direction in college than you do in the NFL. It's a power-oriented league. Some coaches get in and they think it will be one way, but it's not.