LEXINGTON – The vast majority of the time when the Kentucky football Wildcats lose a game, it’s the head guy, Rich Brooks, who gets the brunt of the criticism. Even as recently as two weeks ago there were at least some fans suggesting UK football hasn’t made progress under Brooks, which is a comment that falls well on the wrong side of ignorant.
So I’m going to take a minute and share a poignant and well deserved tribute to Brooks, expressed this week by ESPN.com writer Chris Low, who covers the Southeastern Conference.
Low’s remarks come on the heels of a signature, 21-14, win by Kentucky on Saturday night at Auburn.
“Boy did he deserve this one,” Low wrote of Brooks. “His Kentucky team deserved this one. This is a program that would have faded into oblivion in the past after losing three straight games and having so many key players go down with injuries. But Brooks kept his guys focused and kept them believing, and the Wildcats went to the Plains and took out Auburn 21-14 on Saturday.”
Low then addressed the big picture of how much Rich Brooks has meant to Kentucky football in seven years.
“Kentucky follows its leader,” Low wrote. “The Rich Brooks legacy at Kentucky will be closely tied to the Wildcats’ three straight bowl victories the last three seasons and how he’s elevated the program to respectability at a school where basketball is king.
“But Brooks’ legacy goes even deeper than that. He’s brought a sense of toughness to Kentucky football, a sense of class to Kentucky football and a no-excuses resolve that should serve this program long after he’s retired and back home fishing in Oregon. It’s fitting that Brooks is a former boxer, because his teams at Kentucky have never quit fighting.
“The Wildcats lost a heartbreaker two weeks ago at South Carolina, and in doing so, lost their starting quarterback. They were already without their best defender, cornerback Trevard Lindley, but never blinked on the heels of a three-game losing streak and went into Auburn on Saturday night and won 21-14 thanks to some gritty defense and a balanced running game.
“Brooks gave props to everybody from his backup quarterback, to his coaches, to his punter after the game and called it the “ultimate team win.’ Well, here’s giving some props to Brooks. There’s a reason his teams play with so much heart.”
Some of Saturday’s joy will take a step back, to be sure, if the Wildcats don’t sustain momentum and take care of the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks Saturday night (7 p.m. on Fox Sports South) back here at Commonwealth Stadium. But the hope is, of course, that Kentucky will be all the more determined now after seeing their confidence rewarded at Auburn.
Kentucky broke a 15-game losing skid to Auburn, dating back to 1966.
The accolades for the Auburn victory are almost too numerous to mention. I’ll start with the defense simply because the numbers put up by linebackers senior Micah Johnson, senior Sam Maxwell and sophomore Danny Trevathan are racked up 14 tackles each and Maxwell had 10.
Trevathan, Brooks said, had a “spectacular” game, but it was Johnson who was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week.
“I didn’t expect to get the award,” Johnson said Monday. “I was more excited about the win, really. If I had had one tackle and we had won, I would have been just as excited.
“We needed this win bad,” Johnson added. “I think everybody on the team knew it. We needed it for the individuals on the team, for the program and for the fans. We haven’t gotten many breaks and this was a game where we were close and we kept fighting and we won.”
And yet, according to Brooks, his best defender Saturday night may have been junior cornerback Paul Warford, who’s been nursing a painful groin injury and was questionable to even play at Auburn.
True freshman Martavius Nelloms started in Warford’s place a week earlier at South Carolina but came down with a flu bug this weekend and could not go at Auburn.
“We were thinking we’d get maybe 20 to 25 snaps for Paul in the game, and we went from that to coming down the elevator for our pre-game meal and telling Paul, ‘Well, it looks like you’re 100 percent now instead of 70 percent, because Nelloms is sick,’” Brooks said. “And Paul played the whole game. And I’m thrilled that Micah was named the defensive player of the week, but it could have well gone to Paul Warford, and it could have gone to Danny Trevathan. There were a lot of players on our team that played maybe their best game.”
Offensively, Kentucky’s line (senior left tackle Zipp Duncan, senior guard Christian Johnson, senior center Jorge Gonzalez, senior tackle Justin Jeffries, junior tackle Brad Durham and sophomore guard Stuart Hines), was once again outstanding, as evidenced by the fact that junior running back Derrick Locke gained 126 yards on 19 carries and running back, quarterback, wide receiver Randall Cobb added 109 yards on 12 carries, and Kentucky’s three quarterbacks - Cobb, freshman Morgan Newton and junior Will Fidler, were not sacked.
Locke, sorry to say, has aggravated the knee that he tore up early last season and is questionable for the Louisiana-Monroe game. Locke may be able to go Saturday, but Brooks hinted that the more rest the Wildcats can give Locke, the better, going forward as UK tries to reach its’ fourth straight bowl game.
Kentucky is 3-3 overall and 1-3 in the SEC. Louisiana-Monroe, by the way, is 4-2 overall, losing only at Texas (59-20) and Arizona State (38-14).
Brooks heaped praise on all three of his QBs, Newton, Fidler and Cobb, afterward. None of the three passed the ball well, totaling only 9 for 22 for 75 yards, but none of them made any game-changing mistakes, either.
“Morgan did remarkably well with his poise early in the game when you’d think he would have been nervous,” said Brooks of Newton, who just one week earlier was expected to redshirt this season and instead got the starting nod at Auburn. “And as the game went on, he started to make some mistakes, like the pressure of trying to move the offense and make some things happen might have got to him.
“That’s when we made a change and Will came in and settled things down and handled himself as a guy who’s been around a little bit should and directed three pretty good drives,” Brooks added. “We missed a field goal on one and scored on the other two. He did some very good things.”
And Cobb? Just another remarkable effort from the sophomore from Alcoa, Tenn., who was hobbled in preseason by back spams and now has very painful tendinitis in his ankles. Cobb’s 62-yard run late in the fourth quarter keyed Kentucky’s go-ahead score at Auburn.
“Randall is Randall,” Brooks marveled. “The question is how much can you do with Randall. He’s again hobbled this week, so we have to be a little more careful. But he is just a spectacular, competitive playmaker. A lot of you guys who write or speak for a living will be more eloquent and find the right adjective. But Randall is just a GREAT football player.”
Asked to compare Cobb to anyone he’s coached in his 40-plus years as a coach, Brooks replied: “I’ve had some under-sized backs - Derrick Locke is one - and I had some guys at Oregon who were spectacular like that, too, but not with the same set of athletic skills that Randall possesses. Add to that the exuberance and leadership capabilities, the personality and the All-American smile ... the you’d-be-glad-to-see-your-daughter-bring-him-into-your-house ... I mean, he’s the whole package.”
And last, what about Fidler, who received, in Brooks’ words, the “ultimate slap in your face” last week when he was passed over for the starting nod at quarterback in favor of the freshman, Newton.
“I couldn’t be prouder of Will if he was my own son,” Brooks said. “He’s been through a lot here. It hasn’t gone his way, so to speak. But every day he comes out there and works and competes and does everything he can to make it right and help this team. Last week was kind of the ultimate slap in the face when we elected to go with the freshman (Newton), and he handled it very well.”
In the interest of full disclosure, one reason Fidler did not start is because his surgically repaired throwing shoulder was hurting last week.
Still, “That was one of those decisions as a head coach that are sometimes not popular, and sometimes not totally popular with your OWN team, that are hard to make, but you make them because you think it’s the right thing to do for that game and for the future,” Brooks said. “And Will handled it all with class. He has a good arm, and I’m very hopeful that this experience the last two games will help him become a more consistent playmaker because he is just an outstanding young man.”
GAME NOTES: Saturday will be Military Appreciation Day at Commonwealth Stadium. Also, UK’s 2009 Hall of Fame class will be honored during the game. The class is made up of former volleyball coach Kathy DeBoer, football player Wilbur Hackett, baseball player and contributor Jim Host, swimmer Rachel Komisarz, basketball player Mike Pratt and baseball pitcher Brandon Webb.