SEC FOOTBALL: Conventional Road To Failure

For the longest time --- until a Head Ball Coach came to Alachua County on December 31, 1989, at least --- Southeastern Conference football was dominated by the old-time football religion of smashmouth power running, stout defense, and fundamentally sound special teams.

SEC football --- epitomized by a very entrenched view of "the way you had to play the game" --- was rooted in the basics, without a lot of creativity or the accordingly shocking flair from the football artists who would dare to defy SEC conventions in either methods or personality.

Therefore, while Florida ascended the SEC throne and stayed there for quite some time in the 1990s, other programs were stuck in the equivalent of mental molasses. One of these programs was Kentucky, under the direction of an appreciably traditional football man named Bill Curry. Ironically enough, Curry ---at Alabama --- was the man who won the last SEC championship of the 80s, before Steve Spurrier's career as an SEC head coach began. When he came to Kentucky in 1990, Curry seemed to be a man capable of building up the program. But besides a Peach Bowl win in 1993, the Curry Era in Lexington never amounted to anything. Traditional, pedestrian football from a wise but not necessarily innovative mind didn't elevate Kentucky's place in the SEC hierarchy.

Today, Rich Brooks --- not inexperienced, not dumb, and not without considerable football credentials, including and especially as a college head coach --- is presiding over a sinking ship, a program where morale is sagging, fortunes are lagging, critics are nagging, and time is dragging... dragging down Brooks' reputation and the state of Kentucky Football. The Wildcats' woes under both Curry and Brooks, two football lifers with appreciably straightforward and traditional approaches to the game, raise a lot of questions to be sure. However, the most interesting query of them all is the following: "Was Hal Mumme really not that bad after all?" This leads to an equally fascinating follow-up question: "for Kentucky and other bottom-tier SEC programs, is an untraditional offensive approach needed to compete more vigorously in the conference?"

When Mumme left Lexington in shame in February 2001 because of off-field issues, someone in the Kentucky football hierarchy (perhaps Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart, who did not hire Mumme, a C.M. Newton find in 1997) forgot to realize that while procedures needed to be cleaned up in the Wildcat program, the offense --- a creative, exciting, potent one --- needed to be kept intact. The internal fearlessness that fueled Mumme's relentlessly aggressive strategies and decisions --- and which made opposing coaches sweat while giving UK players untold confidence --- needed to be sustained in the men who would follow "Mister Air Raid" in Lexington.

Safe to say, Guy Morriss and then Brooks did not fit the bill. Is it really any wonder, then, that UK football is languishing?

Mumme once said that if he wanted to run the ball, he'd use the wishbone. This keen bit of insight shows that Mumme --- now at New Mexico State after a successful three-year stint at Southeastern Louisiana --- understands how to be a head coach for lower-tier programs. You can't just line up in the old, traditional way; you have to use fundamentally different systems and looks that put a team in position to win with variety, cleverness and disguise. If Navy decided to run a basic I-formation running attack with a pro set pass formation, the Middies would have been drubbed last year. But the slickness of a well-oiled triple option gave the Brigade a level of guile and a dimension of surprise on every play that kept defenses off balance.

Kentucky's football story over the past 15 years is, in many ways, the same story of the University of Florida. Sure, there are obvious differences in the recruiting base, the level of success, the prominence of each program, and yearly expectations. But the larger dynamics are the same: traditional approaches just don't cut it anymore. Old football philosophies don't quite work the way they used to. While Florida is set to become a real factor again in the SEC with an impressively innovative offensive mind in Urban Meyer, Kentucky is stuck in a rut with an old-timer such as Rich Brooks. Conversely, Kentucky enjoyed success with a guy like Hal Mumme, whereas Florida's leanest three years in the last 15 came under a more vanilla kind of coach in Ron Zook, who is a perfect psychological, methodological and spiritual fit in the plodding Big Ten at Illinois.

Traditional SEC football? Your grandfather might still like it, but that doesn't mean it can be sustained in this day and age. The recent past and the dreadful present-day reality of Kentucky football show that conventional wisdom really isn't all that wise anymore. Mavericks like Hal Mumme --- at least in their on-field strategy --- shouldn't be dismissed or pooh-poohed for chucking the ball around the ballpark. Folks in Gainesville should be especially appreciative of that consideration.


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