No turning back now |

No turning back now

Rich Brooks starts his sixth season at the University of Kentucky facing somewhat of a crossroads, after back-to-back 8-5 seasons that were capped by victories in bowl games.

The Wildcats not only made some noise in the SEC, but also on the national level with 43-37 upset of No. 1 ” and eventual national champion ” LSU in three overtimes.

It’s a stark contrast to the type of seasons fans in the bluegrass state saw in the first three years in the Brooks era, which totaled a 9-25 overall record.

In the past two campaigns, however, Brooks’ bunch has posted a 16-10 record with a pair of Music City Bowl victories over Clemson and Florida State.

“It was the first time in 50-something years that Kentucky had won back-to-back bowl games,” said Brooks, a Nevada County native who graduated from Nevada Union High School. “The last time it happened Bear Bryant was working here.”

But now that he’s helped lift the program out of the SEC cellar, what will the Wildcats do for an encore?

Considering the class Kentucky just graduated ” including four NFL draft picks: Andre Woodson (QB), Keenan Burton (WR), Steve Johnson (WR) and Jacob Tamme (TE) ” how can the coach expect to follow up such an act this fall?

“We can follow it up because we’ve got a lot of good players in the program right now,” Brooks said. “We just need some of the new guys stepping into the vacated spots to get to work and prove themselves in the games.

“(The recent success) feels good, but it’s still not where we want to be. We want to be in the SEC race for a whole season. Last year, we were but it fell by the wayside and couldn’t win the SEC East.”

The Wildcats looked strong early, with wins over Louisville and Arkansas in addition to the upset of LSU, but fell to Florida by eight points and Tennessee by two in four overtimes.

Being a member of the SEC ensures that Brooks will once again have a tough test each and every week of conference action, which begins Oct. 4 against Alabama in Tuscaloosa, followed a murderer’s row of South Carolina, Arkansas and Florida. And don’t forget the annual matchups with Tennessee and Georgia, the No. 1 team in the country.

But Brooks remains confident in the crew he’s putting on the field this fall, mainly because the talent level available has skyrocketed since he first arrived in Lexington.

“There’s no doubt that there are more people interested in coming to Kentucky than there were when I first got here,” Brooks said. “We’ve had some very good recruiting classes and this year we’ve already got a bunch of commitments. So we’ve made some real in-roads in the area of talent.

Brooks still has a home in Oregon, where he won the 1979 AP national coach of the year award after leading the Ducks to the Rose Bowl, and he said he plans to return to Grass Valley next summer for his 50th high school reunion.

“I’ll be seeing some guys I haven’t seen for a long time,” he said.

And no doubt he’d like to have a few more success stories ” such as a third-straight bowl victory or an SEC East championship ” to talk about when he gets there.

To contact Sports Editor Brian Hamilton, e-mail or call 477-4240.

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