Local Wildcat fans saddened by Brooks retirement

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Big Blue faithful believe future bright with Phillips

By John Herndon

Leslie Edmondson has not bled Blue all her life, but her heart was still heavy when Rich Brooks retired as football coach at the University of Kentucky on Monday.

“We were in Nashville (for the Music City Bowl) when the news broke that he was more than likely going to retire,” said Edmondson, a teacher at Anderson County Middle School.

“Even knowing the chance was high, the thought was there that maybe he would change his mind.”

Edmondson, who started watching the Wildcats when she and her husband, Nathan, were dating in 1999, expressed sentiments reflected those of many Wildcat fans. They saw Brooks as a bastion of integrity who turned a moribund program into one that competed for bowl bids and even upset the nation's top-ranked team, as it did with a win over LSU in 2007.

“Coach Brooks brought excitement back to the program along with respectability and integrity,” Edmondson said in a message from her Facebook account. “He came to Kentucky when football was at a low; Kentucky had the reputation of being cheaters and not very good ones at that. He came in with a system of honor and hard work and brought it back to four straight bowl appearances with three of those being a win.”

When Brooks came to probation-ridden Kentucky in 2003, he was widely seen as someone that UK hired after being unable to lure a big name – remember the flirtation with Bill Parcells? – to Lexington. Three years into his regime, few wanted him to stay. After four bowl bids for the first time in Kentucky football history, few wanted Brooks, 68, to leave.

As the now famous banner said, “In Papaw We Trust.”

“Brooks is leaving the program in much better shape than he got it,” said lifelong Wildcat fan Nick Cann. “From probation to four straight bowl games is incredible.”

And along with that transformation, Brooks went from reviled to revered, even though he had a losing record at Kentucky. His 39 wins trails only Bear Bryant, Fran Curci and Jerry Claiborne in Lexington.

Yet, with the increased success came increased expectations. Some felt that, while Brooks had rejuvenated the program, he had taken it as far as he could.

“To be honest, I'm glad,” said Wildcat fan Jeremy Turpin, who played football for a season at Anderson County High School. “I haven't really cared for him that much. I'm about half tired of playing in the Music City Bowl every year.”

UK defeated Clemson and Florida State in the Music City in 2006 and 2007 before losing to Clemson on Dec. 27. The Wildcats defeated East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl in 2008.

Cann, a season-ticket holder who is an assistant coach for the girls' basketball team at Anderson County High School, believes the future is bright for UK football.

“I think it is a good time for (Brooks) to get out,” he said. “Joker has put in his time and he deserves a shot at it.”

Phillips drew the ire of many Wildcat fans after losses to South Carolina and Tennessee this year. “I think some of his late-game play calling has been questionable, but how much of that is his call and how much of that was Rich Brooks or (offensive coordinator-quarterbacks coach) Randy Sanders?

“I think he's proven he's a good recruiter, and when he's had offensive talent he sure looked like a good offensive coordinator. And if you look at the team this year, we started a true freshman (Morgan Newton) most of the year at quarterback, and we were able to move the ball and put some points on the board, despite not having a great set of wide receivers and a true freshman quarterback.”

Turpin, a former running back and receiver, agrees. “I believe Joker Phillips can get us over the hump,” he said. “I believe we will be playing in a bigger bowl within two years while Joker Phillips is coach.”

Whether the Wildcats achieve that or not, one of Rich Brooks' biggest fans is already in Phillips' corner.

“As a coach, I think he will build on the integrity and respect that Brooks brought in while making the program his. I believe we will continue to see the same type of Kentucky football we are use to because he has been with Brooks for so long,” said Edmondson, whose son, Bryce, has attended the Wildcat football camp the last two years.

“As a person, I had the opportunity to watch (Phillips) coach and interact with younger kids and can not say enough positive things about how he made each kid feel 10 feet tall. He emphasized character and honor; something I hope he carries over to his own team.”

E-mail John Herndon at jpherndon@theandersonnews.com.