Did you hear? University of Kentucky Head Men’s Basketball Coach John Calipari has his fifth straight number one ranked recruiting class headed to Lexington this year with the main goal to return the Cats to the top of the college basketball world. UK Head Women’s Basketball Coach Matthew Mitchell has seven McDonald’s All Americans of his own to coach as the Lady Cats look to break through to the Women’s Final Four. Usually this time of year, the Big Blue Nation is looking forward to Big Blue Madness with visions of the Dribble Drive offense dancing in their heads.
But something has happened to the Bluegrass State. There’s actually palpable excitement for football. Are the Wildcat faithful poised to join the rest of the SEC and show the country that Kentucky fans can be just as crazy about football? All signs point to yes. New Head Coach Mark Stoops has done a trifecta of near impossible feats: 1) Stoops has the Cats sitting in the top 10 in most of the recruiting rankings for his first recruiting class. 2) Stoops has brought legitimate excitement to the football program for the first time in a long time. 3) Stoops has raised expectations for the program, but has managed to keep fan’s expectations at a reasonable level, no small feat for most of the Blue clad, diehard Kentucky fans.
At the end of the 2012 football season, the Kentucky football program was at its lowest point in at least a generation, which is saying something for a program that has struggled as mightily as the Cats have on the football field. Not only was the win/loss record disappointing, but the style of play was lackluster and uninspiring and the faithful were avoiding Commonwealth Stadium as if it was Rick Pitino bobblehead night every Saturday. And while there have been glimpses and flashes of great moments in UK Football history, there haven’t been enough of them to keep the above the mediocre level in the SEC or nationally. While other coaches have come to Lexington with dreams of righting the ship, Coach appears to have the ability to deliver on the promise of elevating the Cats from the SEC cellar.
As Coach Calipari has shown, a quality recruiting class can be enough to breathe life into a moribund program. But, unlike basketball, football success takes multiple recruiting classes to start to build momentum for a program. Historically, Kentucky has has SEC quality starters, but it’s the reserves (2nd and 3rd string players) where the talent gap has been the most noticeable. Every SEC team has the 4-5 game brutal conference stretch that can wear down even Heisman trophy caliber players. The key is if you can rest your stars within a game and from game to game and not experience a big drop off. To date, Coach Stoops has been setting the recruiting trail on fire, bringing in recruits with a promise of being something special, to be part of the group that finally turns UK football around.