DESTIN, Fla. — This column is proud to announce it is entering college football’s award business.
Your probable response: Why?
My response to your response: Why not?
I realize I’m a little late to the party. The sport already has almost as many awards as it does bowl games.
College football honors players at every position, even if the position is relevant only on fourth down. It has multiple awards for quarterbacks. And, in its most confusing seasons, it awards a national championship trophy to two teams.
But it doesn’t have a Rich Brooks award. That’s where this column comes in.
The winner of the Rich Brooks award is …
… Kentucky coach Rich Brooks.
As you might have noticed, the award differs from other college football awards in that the name of the award and the winner are the same.
So what? It’s my award. And Brooks deserves it.
He has been overlooked too often — nationally, in the SEC, and even at his own school. In a conference renowned for outstanding coaches, he’s one of them.
The long-term future of Kentucky football is Joker Phillips, who already has been designated as Brooks’ successor. The current big thing in Kentucky sports is newly hired basketball coach John Calipari.
But the school’s startling success in football is all about Brooks, who has led the Wildcats to three consecutive winning seasons. The last coach to accomplish that was Blanton Collier, 53 years ago.
Brooks hasn’t just won. He has won under the most adverse circumstances.
It was bad enough that he came aboard when in-state rival Louisville was peaking. But an NCAA probation sentence had left the Wildcats terribly lacking in SEC-caliber players.
“It didn’t set us back,” Brooks said of the scholarship reductions. “It killed us.
“When I got there, we had 68 players on scholarships. The freshman and sophomores were recruited with us on probation, so the talent level was not SEC talent.”
It’s no wonder that Kentucky lost 25 games in its first three seasons under Brooks. The wonder is in what happened next. Brooks’ fourth team went 8-5. So did his fifth team, which upset national championship contender LSU along the way. And his last team somehow managed to win seven games with only a whimper of offense.
Kentucky has won 20 of its last 32 games under Brooks. Moreover, it is 12-7 in games decided by 10 points or fewer. That should spin the heads of Kentucky fans, who have seen so many close games take a dreadful turn in the final minutes or seconds.
Those fourth-quarter disasters often could be a attributed to speed or lack thereof. When Brooks assumed control of a program in crash mode, he had one player who could run 40 yards in 4.5 seconds or better. Now, he has 20 to 25 players who can do that.
“Size is important,” said Brooks, who is attending the SEC spring meetings this week. “But we had to recruit speed.”
And the coach couldn’t be too slow himself.
“I worried about whether I would have the time — another year (after those three consecutive losing seasons) — to get it done,” he said. “That was a real concern.”
Given time, he didn’t doubt the outcome. Why would he? This wasn’t even his toughest rebuilding job.
“At Oregon, we had to rebuild everything,” he said. “We had nothing. We didn’t have a fan base. We had awful facilities.”
In 1979-80, Brooks led Oregon to back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 16 years. In 1989, the Ducks won eight games for the first time in 26 years. And in 1994, when they won nine games for the first time since 1948, Brooks won four national coach of the year awards.
It’s about time he won another award.