As I walked to Commonwealth Stadium to cover the UK-Vanderbilt football game Saturday, I couldn’t help but feel like I was walking into some strange horror movie a week removed from Halloween.
The intersection of Alumni and South Limestone was so quiet it didn’t even require a crossing guard. The parking lots surrounding the stadium, normally packed full of tailgaters and eager fans, were vastly deserted for rows at a time. The expansive concourses throughout the stadium were nothing more than empty passage ways lined with bored concession stand workers.
Sitting in the press box and prepared for the start of the game, I curiously waited and wondered if fans would eventually arrive. By kickoff, a select few had, and at its best the student section never ran more than three rows deep.
Three hours later, as I walked down to the media room after the game, I reflected on what I had just seen, which was a 40-0 beat down at the hands of Vanderbilt in front of just over 19,000 fans. And I thought to myself, “so it’s come to this? How did the Cats get, well, here?”
Entering the season, UK hadn’t had a home game with fewer than 50,000 fans since 1999. In six home games in 2012, UK has drawn fewer than 50,000 four times, and the disgraceful attendance for the Vanderbilt game goes without saying.
The Commodores win was its largest over an SEC opponent in 64 years, and the largest over the Cats in 96 years. It seems that in its present state, a 1-9 team with a lame duck coach coming off a historically-bad loss, the UK football program is in its worst days in a generation.
Now, you must understand that I do not hail from the great Commonwealth of Kentucky. I was born and raised in Washington D.C., and have spent two of my four years as a student at UK covering the football team in a professional manner. So I have no emotional connection to the program whatsoever. I don’t jump for joy when they win, I don’t sulk when they lose. That being said, what happened on Saturday was an all-time low for the program. A depth so deep it warranted the firing of the head coach with two weeks remaining in the season.
But UK hasn’t always been this bad. In fact, in recent years this program was at what some would call its highest point, having reached five consecutive bowl games, winning three of them. Rich Brooks had taken the team from SEC basement-dwellers to legitimate postseason contenders, and stars like Andre Woodson, Stevie Johnson and Randall Cobb began to give the program some notoriety.
During Phillips’ first year on the job, a potent offense carried a lackluster defense to a 6-6 record, as Cobb earned first-team All-America honors. But, quarterback Mike Hartline was suspended for the team’s bowl game for disciplinary reasons, and UK lost to Pitt 27-10. UK hasn’t reached the postseason since.
Cobb left UK for the NFL, and graduating seniors Hartline, running back Derrick Locke and wide receiver Chris Matthews left the offensive cupboard barren for Phillips. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is when the tide would turn on the program.
Phillips was never able to replace Cobb, and UK’s offense has never allowed it to compete in the SEC. Even in their historic win over Tennessee last season, the Cats played a wide receiver at quarterback and won the game 10-7. Despite a relatively-strong defense led by linebackers Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy, UK finished the year 5-7.
Things got worse for the offense in 2012 with early injuries to sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith and running backs CoShik Williams and Josh Clemons. A UK team that averaged just 15.8 points per game in 2011 improved the average to just 16.4 in 2012, an embarrassing 121st in the nation.
Phillips, the team’s former offensive coordinator, never seemed to find a way to score points upon Cobb’s departure, and was never able to consistently win either. Am I saying 1-9 is on the loss of Randall Cobb? No, not entirely. Am I saying Phillips lost his job because he couldn’t replace Cobb? No, Joker lost his job because he was 12-23 as head coach and 4-19 in SEC play.
But Cobb’s departure did spark the program’s downturn, and it will be up to Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart to find a new spark plug in the form of a head coach that won’t depart after three years.