Rich Brooks’ hot seat got significantly cooler Saturday.
In his fourth year coaching at the University of Kentucky, the Wildcats beat Vanderbilt 38-26 to clinch their first bowl entry since 1999.
The Nevada Union graduate (class of ’58) went 9-25 in his first three years at UK. But this year’s 7-4 start should keep him around Lexington, where football and winning haven’t always mixed.
From 1980 until Brooks took over in 2003, the Wildcats were 95-121-3.
With the recent firings of coaches like Ty Willingham (Notre Dame) and Ron Zook (Florida) after only three years – and both with winning records – Brooks entered the 2006 season feeling plenty of pressure.
“There’s no question I was,” Brooks said. “People don’t have patience anymore, so you have to try to wait through it.
“This was a huge year for us. We had to win to go forward.”
And the season’s not done yet. This Saturday, the Wildcats host Louisiana-Monroe, followed by the season finale Nov. 25 at Tennessee.
In fewer than four years, a parallel can be drawn between the impact Brooks made with the Oregon Ducks and what he has done with Kentucky. Brooks spent 18 seasons – from 1977 to 1994 – building a Pac-10 power in Eugene.
At the end of two seasons under Brooks, Oregon was 4-18. But after that, he led the Ducks to seven winning seasons and four bowl games, including the 1994 Rose Bowl.
It took Brooks 13 seasons, however, to reach a bowl game with Oregon. He’s accomplished that feat in less than a third of the time at Kentucky.
“I think programs were more patient,” Brooks said of the amount of time he was afforded by Oregon. “That was a different era.
“It took a long time to build it into the power that it is. It’s remarkable how that has transpired.”
When Brooks left for the NFL after the 1994 season – and the Ducks’ first outright Pac-10 championship – the FieldTurf at Autzen Stadium was named Rich Brooks Field.
Brooks, 65, had been away from college sidelines for eight seasons before he was hired by Kentucky, but the transition from the Pac-10 to the Southeastern Conference was distinct.
Kentucky isn’t regarded as one of the powers of SEC football, with only two conference championships in its history. The last time the Wildcats won the SEC outright was 1950. In 1976, they shared the championship with the Georgia Bulldogs.
But the fans still frequently fill Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium, which holds 67,606 – the 34th most of any Division I school. To put that in perspective, 54,000 people can fit into Autzen, and in the NFL, San Francisco’s Monster Park has a capacity of 64,450.
In SEC terms, however, Commonwealth Stadium isn’t such a big deal. Seven teams in the conference boast stadiums with capacities of 80,000-plus, and four hold more than 90,000. Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium – the third largest in the country – holds 104,079.
Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Vanderbilt are the only SEC schools with stadiums smaller than Kentucky’s.
“The tradition here,” Brooks said, “when you play Auburn or Alabama or Tennessee, places like that, it’s an amazing environment. It’s very, very rabid.
“(On offense) you have to basically go with a silent count, because you can’t hear your snap counts.
“It’s a treat.”
The Wildcats are clinging to second place in the SEC Eastern Division with a 4-3 conference record. They are ahead of Georgia (4-4), Tennessee (3-3), South Carolina (3-5), and Vanderbilt (1-6).
By beating Georgia 24-20 on Nov. 4, the lowest Kentucky can finish in the division is third. Since 2002, the Wildcats haven’t finished higher than fourth.
Kentucky hadn’t beaten Georgia since 1996.
“All they did after we beat them was go down and beat Auburn, and Auburn had only lost one game” Brooks said of the Bulldogs (7-4 overall). Auburn was ranked fifth by the Associated Press before the loss to Georgia.
“People that support this program understand how hard it is to beat them. That was the 11th time in 60 tries. For us to get that win was very significant.”
When Brooks took over in Lexington, the odds were against him.
Not only was he taking over a program with a lackluster past, but the NCAA still had Kentucky on probation for recruiting violations. As a result, the university had only 68 scholarships to offer football players.
“They had lost 19 scholarships,” Brooks said. “Now we are in the low 80s of scholarship players. When we got here, we had 68.
“It’s been hard to get the numbers up as well as recruit SEC-caliber players, but now we’re really starting to emerge.”
The biggest emergence, though, could be in 2007. Especially if Kentucky doesn’t lose some key juniors to the NFL Draft.
Junior quarterback Andre’ Woodson has thrown for the most yards in the SEC (2,575) and has the fourth-best QB rating (149.7). Junior Keenan Burton is the fourth-best wide receiver in the SEC, with 849 yards and nine touchdowns. Kentucky’s top running back – Rafael Little – is also a junior.
Of the 120 players on the Wildcats roster, only 13 are seniors.
“I think next year we’ll be a much better team than we are this year,” Brooks said. “It’s just a matter of getting a full complement of our recruits.”
Brooks is also looking forward to healing what he calls a “decimated” offensive line. Since camp started, Kentucky has lost nine linemen to injuries.
But this season is still one that should catch the attention of more than a few followers of college football. The Wildcats have won three in a row in the SEC, and are looking to make it four at Tennessee. The last time UK won three-straight conference games was the last year it played in a bowl: 1999.
“A lot of naysayers are starting to believe now,” said Brooks’ older brother Wayne. “But some of their fans still don’t know what winning’s all about. With football, it’s been so many years. It’s really neat to see the turnaround.”
Wayne Brooks, who still lives in Nevada City, has been in attendance at each of the last three of the Wildcats’ games. He’ll also be heading to the bowl game, whichever one selects Kentucky.
The top eight teams from the SEC play in the postseason, with the conference champion earning an automatic bid in the Bowl Championship Series. The No. 2 team from the SEC plays in the Capital One Bowl.
Following the first two bowl selections from the SEC, the Outback Bowl has preference of teams from the Eastern Division, while the Cotton Bowl has preference of teams from the Western Division.
The Chik-fil-A, Liberty, Music City and Independence bowls complete the list.
“We’ve got a chance to climb that ladder in the next two weeks,” Rich Brooks said.
If the Wildcats upset No. 22 Tennessee (7-3 overall) on Nov. 25, they would finish second in the Eastern Division behind Florida (9-1 overall, 8-1 SEC) and likely play Jan. 1 in the Outback Bowl.
To contact Sports Writer Jeff Miller, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4247.
Rich Brooks’ history
Team Position Years Record
Univ. of Oregon Head coach 1977-1994 91-109-4
St. Louis Rams Head coach 1995-1996 13-19
Atlanta Falcons Def. coordinator 1997-2000 30-34
Univ. of Kentucky Head coach 2003-present 16-29
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The Nevada Union Junior Miners Football and Cheer teams traveled to Roseville to take on the Oakmont Junior Vikings in Sacramento Youth Football League action last Saturday.