A Tale of Patience and Perseverance: The Rich Brooks Saga at Kentucky

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A Tale of Patience and Perseverance: The Rich Brooks Saga at Kentucky
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Throughout time, big time athletics have been a young man's game.  The people who compete in the highest levels of sport are young enough to be in the physical prime of their life, and have yet to be hampered with the wear and tear that plague athletes as they become victims of time.

While it may seem obvious that the people who play in the games that we watch aren't collecting social security money, there has been a widespread youth movement with regards to coaches and personnel in professional and college sports alike.

College football has been no exception to this emerging trend, as the average age of a Division I football coach has dropped considerably over the past few years.

Sure there are the coaching luminaries like Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden who have been at their schools for decades and have some advanced mileage, but it doesn't take a thorough investigation to see the direction that a lot of successful football programs want to head in.

Urban Meyer, the Florida head coach whose teams have accounted for two of the last three National Champions, is 45 years old, a pretty young age especially when you consider all of his accomplishments at this stage in his career.

Earlier this year, Tennessee turned to 34-year-old Lane Kiffin to take the reigns of its storied football program.

Even a man like Pete Carroll, who is 57 years old, would make you think he is twenty years younger than he really is with his unparalleled enthusiasm, irresistible charisma, and constant Twitter updates.

This "out with the old, in with the new" mindset has become prevalent in college football, virtually to the point where it could be considered the norm.

With all of this information in mind, it would probably come as a surprise to most people that there still manages to be a place in college football for a man like Rich Brooks.

Brooks is hardly cut from the same cloth as the aforementioned likes of Meyer and Kiffin, and he doesn't come close to fitting the profile of what most athletic directors and boosters look for when they're trying to find someone to head a struggling program.

This made the University of Kentucky's decision to hire Brooks back in 2003 all the more astonishing.  For months and months, there had been widespread speculation that Kentucky would bring in a household name or a coach of that ilk to come in and try to make the Wildcats a viable competitor in the rough and tumble SEC.

The name of Doug Williams, the former Grambling State coach and Super Bowl XXII MVP (who at the time was a personnel executive for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), had been floated about, as had many other high-profile football figures.

The gossip and persistent whispers reached a climax when it was reported that Kentucky was courting Bill Parcells, who at the time was retired and out of coaching.

The prospect of bringing in such prominent figures seemed so spell-binding and surreal for Kentucky fans at the time, that disappointment inevitably set in when AD Mitch Barnhart announced that the school had chosen to go with Brooks.

There was no argument that Brooks has an impressive resume.  He was largely credited with having revived Oregon's football program, where his 17 year stay with the Ducks yielded four bowl appearances, the school's first conference title in 100 years, and a berth in the 1994 Rose Bowl.  He even had NFL coaching experience, both as the head coach of the St. Louis Rams and as a defensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons.

Despite this admirable track record, Kentucky fans were very weary of Brooks' hiring, and controversy subsequently ensued.  The disappointment that afflicted many Wildcat football fans with missing out on Parcells and Williams transformed into anger, and Brooks soon became the victim of considerable criticism before he had even coached a game.

Many griped that he had been away from the game for too long, having not had a coaching job of any capacity since his stint with the Falcons that ended in 2000. 

Others pointed to his age, believing that a man who at the time was already 62 years old was not equipped to guide a program that was coming off of NCAA probation (for infractions committed under previous coach Hal Mumme). 

Building off of the age concern, many other fans and pundits felt that Brooks was out of touch with the modern age of college football, and that his personality and emphasis on fundamentals would not mesh well with today's players.

In Brooks' first three years on the job at Kentucky, his teams didn't do much to prove his doubters wrong, going 9-25 and 4-20 in SEC play in this three year span.

Amidst this lack of success, Brooks became a victim of another reality of the contemporary college football landscape: a general lack of institutional patience from fans, media, alumni, and boosters.

The very same detractors who had been in opposition to Brooks' hiring in the first place were now the ones passionately calling for the university to oust him and head in a new, different direction.  They felt that the decision to go with Brooks was inherently flawed, and fans, bloggers, columnists, and sports radio shows all felt that it was time to pull the plug on what seemed like a failed experiment.

Barnhart, however, did not give in to the demands for Brooks to be fired, and stood firmly by the man who he chose to rebuild Kentucky football. 

Brooks entered his fourth year with his status as the Wildcats coach widely questioned and debated.  The season got off to a slow start for Brooks and his team, but as the year went on, Brooks began to show the college football world what made him into such a successful coach.

Kentucky finished the regular season at 7-5, and defeated Clemson in the Music City Bowl for the school's first bowl victory since 1984.

The following year, with the help of star quarterback Andre Woodson, Brooks led Kentucky to another 7-5 mark, highlighted by a win over the eventual National Champion, LSU, and a No. 8 ranking in the polls in the sixth week of the season.  The Wildcats again went to the Music City Bowl, where they beat Florida State to win a bowl game for the second consecutive season.

Perhaps the most impressive season for Kentucky under Brooks came last year when a team starting new players at several key positions went 6-6 and knocked off East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl for the Wildcats' third consecutive bowl win.

Kentucky's swift change from a probation-plagued program in the perpetual shadow of Wildcat basketball to a respectable SEC program coming off of three straight bowl victories is truly nothing short of remarkable.

But the fashion in which Brooks has gone about all of this change and achieved all of this success has perhaps been even more astounding.

Brooks has proven his critics wrong by demonstrating that his coaching style is still relevant in the modern game.  He has never had the most talented teams, especially compared to other star-studded SEC squads, but he makes the most of what he has, and puts forth fundamentally sound teams that do all of the little intricacies of the game right, day in and day out.

His successful implementation of his coaching philosophy has produced a series of talented, high character players like Woodson, Keenan Burton, Jacob Tamme, and Wesley Woodyard, who have not only gone on to the NFL, but were also critical components in helping elevate the stature of Kentucky football.

Through patience and diligence, great success can be achieved, even if the odds and rampant criticisms at times seem insurmountable, and nobody can testify to that more than Barnhart and the Kentucky administration who have seen the continual lean years of their football program mature into a successful product under the watch of the man that they believed in all along.

Brooks' tenure should serve as a model for any college football fan, media member, or athletic director that the importance of fundamentals, team-oriented football, and the ability to run a clean program should never be undermined no matter how the dynamics of college athletics may change.

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