Hope and starry-eyed optimism are often the last resort of the sports loser. I should know. I've been a University of Kentucky football fan since I was old enough to burry my tiny head in my tiny hands with disappointment.
Something unexpected has happened, though, during this part of the sports calendar usually reserved for obsessing over basketball and forgetting about football. I'm paying almost as much attention to what happens at the Nutter Training Center as I do to what happens at Rupp Arena. Evidently I am not alone.
When Advocate-Messenger sports editor Larry Vaught told me recently that thousands of people had hit his blog in a few hours, I expected him to end his thought with something about one of the basketball players having a cough. Instead, the traffic was drawn by basic press conference photos of Mark Stoops posted on national signing day for high school seniors.
No stranger to the long-suffering football fan base, Vaught wondered whether I was similarly giddy about football. Against my better judgement, the answer is yes. I’ve bought in hook, line and air raid siren.
There is reason for skepticism, of course.
In my lifetime Kentucky has tried just about every version of "how you have to do things if you want a chance to win at a school like Kentucky," that a school like Kentucky could try. Athletic directors — including ones with football field's named after them — have attempted to fix the program from a number of different angles.
They've wooed the big name from the big football power, who on arrival steered the ship away from the classy mediocrity that characterized the later years of Jerry Claiborne's tenure and toward the kind of sluggish football nightmares are made of. Bill Curry was a heck of a guy and taught players plenty of life lessons. Unfortunately, too many of them were about the character building power of getting your butt kicked.
Whenever a team runs a dive play on third-and-long from the other team's 40, I know somewhere Curry is staring straight ahead devoid of expression in approval.
They've gone with the off-the-radar offensive savant. Hal Mumme did a great job putting up points, but then the money orders turned up and the street signs with his name on them came down.
Eventually, even the coaches who started with promise or gave us an illusory glimpse of what real contending football looked like were victims of the same depressing inertia that has characterized Wildcat football since Bear Bryant left. In my lifetime only Rich Brooks has been able to sail off into the majestic sunsets he now chronicles on his Twitter account from his Oregon home.
This time, though, it really does feel, sound and look different. Except for the offense, which looks the same in a good way.
The new head man has garnered support among the faithful in large part because he openly lobbied for the job. The fact he wanted to come here, despite likely being reminded by everyone he encountered about the horror show UK football has been these many decades, banked the guy a huge amount of good will.
Stoops' profile is also appealing in part because he is a younger assistant on the rise with a reputation for connecting with players and offering the same simple message to fans. He might not be the most dynamic or inspirational speaker, but his lack of bombast actually lends credence to what he's selling.
Stoops communicates very clearly what seems a realistic path to success for Kentucky, sounding remarkably self-possessed while doing it. It goes like this: he's been successful as a defensive coordinator everywhere he's been and he's going to deploy a familiar spread offense proven to get results and stay on the bleeding edge of innovation.
It's a plan just solid and sane enough to actually work if he gets the players to implement it. Which brings us to the energy swirling around recruiting that culminated in last week's signing day festivities.
I'll admit there is a lot to be turned off about when it comes to high school recruiting. The older I get the more ridiculous I feel paying attention to where teenagers choose to go to college.
Moral judgements aside, recruiting is probably the most important variable for determining success for a college football program. Whether you find diamonds in the rough who fit your system, bring in guys capable of playing immediately or employ an amalgam of the two, in the SEC you not only need enough to field a team, but capable backups to provide depth.
Unlike the many failed administrations of the recent past, Stoops isn't banking only on "coaching up" players who Kentucky landed over a short list of mid-major schools and the service academies, or ones who will take two or three years to develop. Even if Kentucky never has a roster with the pedigree of the traditional powers, Stoops has made it clear he wants to attract the best.
The new coach said something I really liked in his post-signing day presser about how he would approach going toe-to-toe in the recruiting wars:
"We're not going to take a back seat to anyone. We're going to recruit hard. We will win our fair share."
There is little fairness when it comes to Southeastern Conference recruiting, but the idea Kentucky won't back down when it is up against the likes of Alabama or Georgia or Tennessee from 15 years ago (have to tweak them while a I still can) is refreshing and, it would seem, already working.
When word circulated late in the recruiting process that Louisville Trinity's Jason Hatcher was wavering back and forth between Kentucky and Southern California (pause to consider), Stoops and several of his assistants apparently marched into enemy territory proudly donning the blue and white, and appealed to Hatcher based on the bond they'd forged in just a few months. It's important to note Hatcher is the same young man who told a reporter last year he wouldn't consider Tennessee because they lost to Kentucky, and, I'm paraphrasing here, "if you lose to Kentucky you lose to everyone, because they are always the worst team in the SEC."
Hatcher signed with Kentucky last week.
I'm the furthest thing from a Pollyanna when it comes to UK football. Too many scars. In my mind's eye, it's 5,000th down and Mark Higgs is still trying to get over the goal line against Tennessee in 1987.
I know all too well this year's offense might not gel and the defense might not be Florida State-lite and our four-star recruits could turn out to be paper Wildcats. But I'm letting my sports fan soul take a few sips of fresh air over the next several months, because there is a sense of momentum unknown in these parts in a long time that feels grounded in reality.
In spite of all of the stomach-turning history, Stoops and his energetic coaching staff have stirred enthusiasm for a football program left for dead yet again less than a basketball season ago.
So, let’s have fun with this, because the worst that could happen isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. Let’s buy the hype now, because it costs less than the tickets and K-Club donations they will ask us for eventually.
I hope Stoops has the right answers, but am not going to dread finding out whether he does. Because I can finally hope.