Wildcats haven't had sustained success in the SEC in a long time
Published: Friday, September 21, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 21, 2012 at 12:27 a.m.
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips knows more than most about football in the Bluegrass State.
UP NEXT FOR THE GATORS
Who: Kentucky (1-2) at No. 14 Florida (3-0)
When: 12:21 p.m. Saturday
TV: Fox (WOGX, Channel 13 in Gainesville)
Radio: AM-850, 103.7 FM
As a player, assistant and head coach, Phillips has been connected to Kentucky football for 20 years. He's lived through the up and down cycles the program has endured since Bear Bryant left Kentucky for Texas A&M in 1953.
“It's hard to explain why,” Phillips said, when asked why Kentucky football has lacked sustained success. “One of the things we need to have is consistency, consistency in recruiting, consistency in player development, all those type things. There have been numerous coaches since I've been here and the thing that we need to have is consistency.”
Kentucky enters its matchup with Florida on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on another downward trend. Phillips is on the hot seat after an embarrassing 32-31 home overtime loss to Western Kentucky that dropped the Wildcats to 1-2. Phillips is 12-16 (4-12 in the Southeastern Conference) since succeeding Rich Brooks in 2010.
The last time Kentucky beat Florida, stonewashed jeans and Members Only jackets were still in fashion. The Wildcats won a 10-3 defensive struggle over the Gators at home in 1986. Florida has won 25 straight since.
Kentucky's inability to win against the elite in the SEC didn't start with Phillips. The last time Kentucky posted a winning record in the conference was 1984, when Kentucky went 4-3 in the league and 9-3 overall.
“Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Florida, those teams have depth and talent, and they can just plug them in,” said Fran Curci, who coached at Kentucky from 1973-81.
“Kentucky can't plug them in and that's the hard part. You may have one or two guys. (Former Kentucky receiver Randall) Cobb, who is with the Green Bay Packers, was a terrific player. But you need more good players around them.”
Curci, retired and living and Tampa, had perhaps the best string of sustained success at Kentucky since Bryant. He led Kentucky to a 9-3 season in 1976 and followed it up with a 10-1 season in 1977. But Kentucky's 1977 team also landed on NCAA probation, and he was fired following back-to-back 3-8 seasons in 1980 and 1981.
A former All-American quarterback at Miami, Curci wound up at Kentucky after two seasons coaching the Hurricanes.
“When I went there I was 33 years old, too young to know all of the history, Bear Bryant,” Curci said. “I was wide-eyed, tried to do a good job at Kentucky.
“I always thought at Kentucky, we were the northernmost school in the South and the southernmost school in the north. We didn't have as much high school football talent in the state. I kind of looked at it like Nebraska. We had to go elsewhere to find players. So I really turned our focus to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.
“And because I had some connections from Florida from being at Miami, we were able to bring in some good players and had the thing going there for a while. We were able to beat Florida and Tennessee and LSU.”
Kentucky currently has just six players from Florida on its 2012 roster. One is freshman receiver A.J. Legree, a former Fort White High standout.
Rival Louisville, coached by former UF assistant Charlie Strong, has 32 players from Florida on its roster. Kentucky lost to Louisville 32-14 in its season opener.
“We haven't focused on (recruiting) Florida as much,” Phillips said. “I took over three years ago, and Florida was always an area that I recruited at numerous places that I've been. We are now getting into Florida a little bit more. We've got five commitments from the state of Florida now in our 2013 commitment list, and we'll continue to recruit the state of Florida. It's heavily populated with football players, and again, it's a state we must recruit to be successful at Kentucky.”
There also have been questions about Kentucky's financial commitment to football. The football program has lived in the shadow of a tradition-rich men's basketball program that just won its eighth national championship.
Kentucky's student newspaper, The Kentucky Kernel, pointed out that the school spent $12.6 million for basketball in 2012-13, compared to $9.1 million for football. Football produced $27.6 million in revenue, compared to $20.8 million for basketball.
Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, coming off a national title season, will make $5.2 million in 2012-13. Phillips makes $1.7 million.
Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who was Kentucky's offensive coordinator from 2001-02, said he felt UK's financial commitment to football was strong when was there.
“They've got some great facilities,” Pease said. “When I was there, C.M. Newton and Larry Ivy were the ADs, and Mitch Barnhart was (there) my last year there. They made it a commitment to then. They want to be a well-rounded program. Obviously, they've got a great basketball program, great baseball program and so, it's there. The facilities are there, you have the money, the fanbase. They love football.”
But with mounting losses, that passion for football is waning. Kentucky's attendance of 48,346 for its home opener against Kent State was its lowest since 1973.
“When we were winning there, all of the seats were filled, because deep down people love college football,” Curci said. “When you have your struggles, it's always, well, it's a basketball school. But you look at schools like Michigan, Michigan State, UCLA, at the time they were good in both football and basketball. You can have both (be successful).”