Cool 'Cats

Jason King
Yahoo! Sports

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Practice ended nearly an hour ago, and now Kentucky's Andre' Woodson stands half-nude in the hallway of the Nutter Training Center, wearing only a towel as he talks on a cell phone.

Secretaries scurry by on their way to lunch, so Woodson dips into a corner and faces the wall.

The Heisman candidate is midway through an interview he hoped to conduct from his stall in the Wildcats' locker room, but his teammates' tomfoolery – loud music, dancing, laughter – rattled Woodson's focus. So now he's here, almost in the buff in a public corridor, fielding questions on a conference call.

Oh, the rigors of being 5-0.

Just down the hall, Keenan Burton borrows a small knife to slice open a piece of fan mail. A young admirer from Philadelphia has sent the 1,000-yard receiver two photos: one for him to sign and return, one for him to keep.

"I've gotten stuff from Arizona, from Washington," Burton says. "A few weeks ago someone sent me something from Maine. It definitely feels different around here. We're not used to having so many people know who we are."

Heck, these days, how could anyone not?

Kentucky is off to its best start in 23 years, and frankly, coach Rich Brooks says, "People just can't believe it."

Victories over Louisville and Arkansas have catapulted the Wildcats to No. 8 in the Associated Press poll. A win at 11th-ranked South Carolina on Thursday would make Kentucky 6-0 for the first time since 1950.

Woodson has emerged as the top quarterback in the country while the 66-year-old Brooks – the former Oregon and St. Louis Rams coach – is the early favorite for SEC Coach of the Year.

"The fans around here don't even know how to react," says Brooks, chuckling. "They're over the top right now. They've never experienced something like this before."

No, at Kentucky, football tradition is only as deep as a shot glass. At Kentucky, coaches get doused with Gatorade – during losses. At Kentucky, the Wildcats are viewed as coach passengers while the basketball squad rides first class.

Or at least that's how it used to be.

"This is what we all signed up for," says linebacker Wesley Woodyard, a senior. "This is why we've been working so hard. We walk across campus now and everyone knows our name."

Woodyard pauses and shakes his head.

"A few years ago," he says, "most people didn't even want to talk to us."


Two days before each and every Kentucky game, Brooks and his wife, Karen, hit the town for a nice dinner. "Date Night," he calls it

So Tuesday – 48 hours before kickoff against South Carolina – the plan was to dine on the patio at Murray's, a Lexington favorite known for its artichoke dip. Karen hoped the team's recent success might help them get seated without a wait.

"We probably don't even need to make a reservation now," she says. "It's funny, because, not long ago, they probably wouldn't have wanted us in their restaurant at all."

As much as he's enjoying his current success, Brooks could have used some Kentucky bourbon to get through his first years with the Wildcats.

When he accepted the job in 2003, Brooks inherited a program that had just been cold-cocked by the NCAA because of the recruiting violations that occurred under former coach Hal Mumme.

Kentucky lost 19 scholarships over a three-year period. At one point the Wildcats had just 68 scholarship players on the roster, and seven of them were former walk-ons.

"There were times you'd look out on the field and see freshmen and sophomores at all of our key positions," athletic director Mitch Barnhart says. "It's tough enough competing with 85 players in a conference like the SEC. To ask someone to try to do it with 67 or 68 is almost unreasonable and unfair."

But Kentucky fans weren't big on excuses – and they weren't big on Brooks, who's hiring they'd poo-pooed from the start.

To them, it didn't matter that Brooks spent 18 years resurrecting a listless program at Oregon, where he earned a Pac-10 title and Rose Bowl berth during his final season in 1994.

Brooks lasted just two years as the Rams head coach before becoming Atlanta's defensive coordinator in 1997. Brooks actually served as the Falcons' interim head coach for a few games when Dan Reeves fell ill during the team's Super Bowl season of 1999.

Brooks resigned after the 2001 season and was out of work when Kentucky contacted him about its coaching vacancy early in 2003. At that point he was the Wildcats' fourth or fifth option, as names such as Bill Parcells, Jim Donnan and David Cutcliffe had fallen by the wayside.

"From the get-go, I wasn't universally accepted," Brooks says. "I clearly wasn't the first choice. I was the stop-gap when they ran out of viable candidates.

"A lot of people wanted a name that they were more familiar with, maybe someone with Kentucky connections or a big name SEC coach from the past. I didn't fit the bill."

Brooks leans forward in his leather office chair and points his finger.

"But," he says, "I was willing to take on the challenge when a lot of people weren't."

That alone, Kentucky's players say, was enough to earn their respect.

"Anyone that's willing to take a job like this shows the kind of character they have," Burton said. "Probation, no scholarships … the (program) was in a bad state. He showed us he was in it for the long haul and not just in it to have a paycheck."

Still, the Wildcats went 4-8, 2-9 and 3-8 during Brooks' first three years. Predictably, his detractors became more and more vocal.

Karen Brooks says coaches began canceling their newspaper subscriptions because their wives were so hurt by the negative coverage.

"When the news came on at night I'd just leave the room," she said. "It was horrible. If he'd have wanted to leave I'd have said, 'Let's get the heck out of here.' "

Instead Rich Brooks absorbed it all.

When he wasn't "mellowing out" at the fishing pond behind his house, Brooks made it a point to read each and every nasty letter he received from fans.

Asked if any were particularly vicious, Brooks says: "They all kinda ran together after awhile."

Brooks heard the insults that rained down from the stands, too. He paid attention to the barbs from the media and even made it a point to listen to radio talk shows on his way home from work.

"Yeah, I listened," Brooks says. "When you're trying to build a program you want to know what people think. You've got to have a tough hide."

Barnhart says the negativity peaked after Brooks' third season in 2005. He said fans wanted "immediate, wholesale change."

But Kentucky's administration decided to stick with Brooks, who made light of the situation the following summer at SEC Media Days.

"I'm baacck," he said as he walked to the podium.

That afternoon, more than a few reporters snickered when Brooks predicted the Wildcats would reach the postseason in 2006. But they didn't know what had been happening on the Kentucky practice fields.

They didn't know about Andre' Woodson.


When Brooks walked into Woodson's home back in 2003, he told him he thought he was a "diamond in the rough." An odd choice of words, considering nearly every school in the country was clamoring for the 6-foot-5, 230-pounder.

Nearly five years later, Woodson's height, athleticism and calm demeanor – he's thrown just one interception in his last 325 attempts – are causing a buzz among NFL scouts, and his late-game feats against Louisville and Arkansas have made him a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy.

"I don't care if I go to New York (for the ceremony) or not," Woodson says. "Being 5-0 right now is way better than that."

That kind of leadership is what Brooks admires most about Woodson, an Army brat who spent time on multiple military bases before settling in Fort Knox, Ky., in 1994.

Woodson's parents divorced when he was 2 years old. Years later it was Robin Woodson who taught her son to throw a football. Whether they were stationed in Germany or Hawaii, mother and son always found a place to play catch.

It wasn't until the eighth grade, Woodson says, that he could heave it farther than Mom.

Woodson's team at North Hardin High School ran a wishbone offense, so he was lucky if he passed more than 10 times per game. Instead he spent much of his prep career in the shadow of Brian Brohm, another Kentucky high school star who signed with Louisville.

Four years later, both players are Heisman candidates.

"He's one of the best leaders I've ever been around," Brooks says of Woodson. "Even when things aren't going good for him, he'll stand in that pocket and not get rattled. He just doesn't throw the ball to the wrong guy very much. We're lucky to have him."

Much like Brooks, Woodson hasn't always been treated like royalty in Lexington. The Wildcats went 3-8 with Woodson as a starter in 2004. The following spring he emerged from offseason drills ranked No. 2 on the depth chart.

Woodson told his mother he wanted to quit, but she'd have none of his sulking. Instead she gave him a motivational speech that forced him back into the weight room and onto the practice field. He's been a different player ever since.

"All of a sudden there was sunshine where there had been darkness," Brooks says.

The addition of former Tennessee quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders also helped. Sanders, who tutored Peyton Manning during his All-American days with the Vols, told Woodson he needed to get rid of the ball more quickly. Eventually they trimmed a full second off his release time.

From there Woodson hasn't looked back – and neither have the Wildcats.

With Woodson leading the way, Kentucky has won 10 of its last 11 games dating back to last season. Their victory over Clemson in the Music City Bowl gave the Wildcats an 8-5 record and marked their first postseason victory in 22 years.

"Ever since we won that game, people have been talking about Kentucky football," Woodson said. "You hear about it everywhere you go. It's nice instead of, 'When's basketball season going to start? ' "


Back at the Nutter Training Center, the phone of football secretary Sandy Griffin seems to ring every few seconds.

"We've actually had fans from Tennessee call to wish us good luck," Griffin says. "People from Louisville even called. Can you believe that?"

Burton, a possible first-round pick in next spring's NFL draft, collapses onto a nearby couch and relaxes after a long morning of practice. Scoring some Reese's peanut butter stix from a candy basket, he begins to talk about how much the program has progressed since his days as a freshman and sophomore.

"I just remember the booing," said Burton, a senior. "I'd look up in the stands and people were leaving before the game was over. It was tough, but we couldn't get too upset about those negative things. You're expected to win here. You have to prove that you're worthy of playing for Kentucky."

When Brooks took over in 2003, only one player on the roster ran the 40-yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds. Now more than 20 Wildcats can beat that time. Woodson, Burton and tailback Rafael Little have all blossomed into future pros, and Brooks is finally getting the bodies and talent he needs in the aftermath of the probation.

The mindset on campus has changed, too.

Brooks said it's "a joke" that people label Kentucky "a basketball school." He notes that the Wildcats have ranked in the Top 25 attendance in all but one year since 1999 – and it's not as if the school has fielded a ton of great teams during that span.

Kentucky sold 46,000 season tickets this season, 52,000 if you count the students. Last year the Wildcats' largest crowd was 64,000. A week ago they drew that many for a game against Florida Atlantic (no offense, Howard).

Fifty thousand Kentucky fans were on hand for last season's Music City Bowl victory over Clemson in Nashville.

Most of the credit, the Wildcats say, should go to Brooks.

"Coach Brooks isn't here to make friends," Burton says. "He's here to win games and turn young men into men."

Five years later, Barnhart couldn't be happier with his hire. He said it's been rewarding to watch Brooks and seniors such as Woodson, Burton, Woodyard, Little and tight end Jacob Tamme ascend from the bottom of the SEC to the top.

"Rich is as consistent and forthright of a person as I've ever been around," Barnhart says. "There are names that would cause more sizzle in terms of style points, but no one will give you more substance than Rich."

The question now is how long will the success last?

Beginning with Thursday's trip to No. 11 South Carolina, four of Kentucky's next seven games will be against opponents ranked among the country's Top 12. The Gamecocks beat the Wildcats 24-17 last season.

"It's an opportunity to make a big statement on national television," Woodson says. "A lot of teams are going to be watching us to see whether we're that good of a team. It's a big opportunity for all of us.

"We still feel like we have to prove that we belong in this conference. There are still people out there saying that we're not that good of a team or that we don't deserve our ranking."

Woodson says he wants his teammates to block out the hoopla surrounding Thursday's game – as well as the attention the Wildcats will receive throughout the rest of the season.

Burton, though, is more realistic.

"You can't block anything out," Burton says. "You see it. You read it. You hear it. If you think that you've arrived, you're liable to lose every game.

"We've handled failure. We've handled disappointment. Now we're about to see how we handle success."

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