I am laying off the local sports today and staying close to my heart. Wildcat football is on the agenda today and I am ready to reluctantly dip my pinky toe into the frigid metaphorical waters. Oh my, our beloved Cats; where do we begin?
Three years ago we thought we had the blue ribbon recipe. We had Stoops, we had some great offensive prospects and a great defensive line. What do we have now? I’ll tell you what we have now; we have a fourth place ceiling over our heads and a failing defensive line. I believe the SEC has been, and always will be, one of the absolute best conferences in the nation as far as talent and competition. Sadly, the wildcats have been in the back of the pack for a while now.
The game against Vanderbilt is still our most competitive game; Florida and Tennessee are still way out of reach. A win against Alabama is as far away as Jupiter in the eyes of Cat fans. We have to wait until basketball season to talk with confidence and arrogance. Talking football leaves us in unfamiliar waters. “We could win seven maybe eight games with this schedule if Boom Williams can stay on the field, or if it isn’t left up to Drew Barker to make the play happen.”
It’s a hard life for a UK football fan around here with WVU fans waiting for their revenge from last basketball season. The rivalry is sharp and most of the time we just surrender when it comes to football conversations.
With the addition of the playoffs and championship game now being played on the college scene, we are left out of that excitement to. UK is our favorite but we keep a couple of ‘mistress schools’ on hand so we can enjoy the remainder of the season.
Stoops remains adamant that if we could just get a few more things to fall our way we can get a big ‘W’ in some of these close games. I try my hardest to believe him but I can’t ignore what I see. They fall apart when the games get close. When the pressure is on, the Cats will undoubtedly fall right back into place behind the pack. We are 12-24 in the Stoops era with only four wins in conference play. Those numbers don’t lie.
Sure we have mounds of construction to brag about and new uniforms, with new logos. We have one of the best training facilities in college football and one masterpiece of a stadium, but the wins, we don’t have those to brag about.
However, the Cats were not the same Cats during the recent SEC media days. They spoke different and answered questions differently. They confirmed the spirit that Coach Stoops had remarked about during his initial address about the program and the upcoming season. When faced with the question how do we turn these close losses into big wins, Coach Stoops’ answer was we change the culture around the program. Stoops made the remark, quoted by Jennifer Smith of the Hearld-Leader, “The biggest change I’m excited about is the culture change within our program. I think it’s very easy to change the climate within a program and very difficult to change the culture and I’m very proud of the administration, our coaching staff, our players, to continue to push for that winning culture.”
This doesn’t send me directly into the heart of West Virginia to immediately begin bragging about how this year will be different, but it does make me set back in my seat and think. Stoops could be right, maybe it’s not the athletic ability, or the plays, or the roster. Maybe, it’s the drive in the players. Every player wants to win but some players take it a step farther in order to make that dream a reality. Case in point, Belfry High School football. You can say what you want about the names on the roster and where they come from. I believe the main question is would they have gotten to the level they are today anywhere else? Is that what draws them there, the winning culture surrounding the program?
UK players went on to verify what stoops’ was talking about. They talked about how the team had been putting in the extra effort over the summer to change from last year. No more rolling the dice on whether this season would be good or not. They are making it a good year by changing who they are as a team. They said now the Cats are the ones living in the practice facility all summer looking over game films and working through plays. They are the team that obsesses over the small mistakes they made. All of this is part of an effort to do what Stoops’ called, “creating a larger margin of error so we don’t have to play a perfect game every time.”
I can buy into that. I have to as Cats fan, something has to change this year, we have to have something to hold onto or we become bitter like Cleveland fans; we don’t want to be like Cleveland fans.
Basically what was covered at the SEC media days by media from around the nation was that the Cats are fine tuning themselves. Is Alabama the program it is today because of the recruits or is it because of Nick Saban and the fact that if you go to play at Alabama you better be the best because that program accepts nothing less and if you slack there are plenty of players ready to take your spot. Once I have placed this philosophical question under a microscope I believe Stoops may be on to something here, the culture of a program may play a bigger role than previously believed or realized.
One thing is for sure, you don’t have to like your team to support it. I may have a completely different opinion if we are one close game away from another bowl appearance like last year, but right now, I’m going to follow Stoops and lean into this philosophy as well. I’m going to stay away from the screams that our 2017 recruiting class is the problem, our individual players is the problem and Stoops himself is the problem, although this is the last year I am giving him to make the changes we need before I jump on the ‘get rid of Stoops’ band wagon. This year I’m going to have some faith that they will do better.
(William plaster is the sports reporter for the Williamson Daily News, he can be reached at 304-235-4242 ext. 2274 or at firstname.lastname@example.org on on twitter @sidplaster.)