Joker Phillips and the University of Kentucky football program have been attempting to climb a long-standing wall, a wall that has seemed impenetrable since Bear Bryant left the program in a huff many moons ago.
There have been moments in which the program seemed ready to establish itself as a quality gridiron contender—during the Curci era, the Mumme regime, and the Rich Brooks span—and appeared poised and ready to leap over the wall.
However, they always seemed to stumble back into reality: a basketball school that will never appreciate football, never support the program in a manner that is required to compete in the Southeastern Conference, mediocre at its best.
Until the last several years of football action.
Over the last five seasons, the Kentucky program has been able to maintain a status of consistency, becoming bowl eligible every year during that span.
They have upgraded the talent, they’re finally upgrading the facilities, and it appears that they will not be pushed off the wall without a fight in 2011.
Coach Phillips has amassed a talented staff in Lexington that has refused to leave town, continually upgrading his core group of recruiters and attempting to turn around a program that has been in a state of slumber.
Joker still has quite a lot of work left to do; winning at Commonwealth Stadium requires changing a lifelong culture of losing, not just a few bowl games.
The Kentucky football program has long lain dormant with the Vanderbilt Commodores, clawing at the bottom of the SEC East, rarely posing a threat to any of the prominent teams that laced their schedule.
However, they are now a threat to win every single ball game for which they lace up the cleats.
They have reached a level at which they provide a stiff challenge to any opponent, and they have shown that they will not go down without a fight.
This team has knocked off quality SEC opponents on the road, has gone to the wire with the most talented teams on their schedule, and is finally respected as a football team—not just that damn basketball school.
Will Kentucky ever contend for a SEC East crown?
The Wildcats return 10 starters on the defensive side of the ball, including superstar linebacker Danny Trevathan, and have inserted a much more aggressive, ball-hawking defense under the tutelage of Rick Minter.
Minter’s defense will bring pressure from all positions, use creative fronts and coverage, and be much more adept at defending the spread offenses that have lambasted Kentucky over the past decade.
This improved defense, along with a talented, albeit depleted, offense, provide Kentucky with the ability to be competitive in all facets of the game.
Have they reached the level of challenging for an SEC East crown? No.
However, they are trending in the right direction, moving closer to a goal that seemed well past the horizon 10 years ago:
Not just competing.