December 28, 2009
The Worldwide Leader isn't going to break into its regularly scheduled programming for a special edition of SportsCenter devoted entirely to a coach whose team just lost the Music City Bowl. But if Rich Brooks' post-game admission Sunday night that he's 80 percent sure he won't be back as Kentucky's head coach in 2010 fails to generate a tenth of the hype and speculation afforded to Urban Meyer's uncertain future in the same division, it's still worth a tip of the cap to the most respected hand to ever accumulate a losing record over 30 years as a head coach.
Brooks is the rare coach whose record -- 128-154-4 at Oregon and Kentucky since 1977 (we'll ignore his ill-fated stint as the first coach of the Rams following their move to St. Louis in 1995-96), for a paltry .454 winning percentage -- doesn't quite do justice to the thanklessness of the challenges he assumed. When he arrived at Oregon, the Ducks had managed one winning season in the previous decade and hadn't been to a bowl game since he'd played against them at Oregon State. After going 2-9 each of his first to years, Brooks left Eugene with as many winning seasons (9) as losing, four bowl bids (before there were more than 60 to go around) and eventually the school's first Pac-10 championship and Rose Bowl appearance in 36 years, for which he swept the coach of the year awards in 1994. They named the field after him in 1995.
He didn't achieve anything nearly so dramatic at Kentucky, the hoops-centric backwater of the ever-escalating SEC arms race, but from the ashes of major probation he has quietly forged a program that's managed to break down some kind of barrier on an almost annual basis. Under Brooks, UK has put together four straight winning seasons for the first time since Bear Bryant left in 1953, and won more games since 2006 (31) than in any four-year span since Bryant's best teams from 1948-51; played in four straight bowl games for the first time in school history, winning three; defeated a No. 1-ranked team for the first time since upsetting undefeated Oklahoma in the 1951 Sugar Bowl; and achieved the school's first top-10 ranking (No. 8 after a 5-0 start in 2007, and again after knocking off top-ranked LSU) since 1977.
If Kentucky wins even five games next year, whether it's under Brooks or coach-in-waiting Joker Phillips, the program will hit the seven-win line over a five-year span for the first time in almost 60 years. Even Brooks, at 68, couldn't remember the last time that happened.
Brooks said he'd come to a final decision about retirement over the next four or five days based on "a lot of things," though players aren't scheduled to be back on campus until classes resume in two weeks. Given his patience over the last 33 years, I'm sure he can wait a few more days to make it official if he needs to.