Kentucky Not Content With Simply Cracking Top 25

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

(AP) - For a victory three decades in the making, Kentucky coach Rich Brooks didn't let his players spend too much time celebrating Saturday's 40-34 upset of Louisville.

Save for a brief emotional speech during practice on Sunday in which he congratulated the Wildcats on becoming the first Kentucky team in 30 years to beat a Top 10 opponent, Brooks remained his pragmatic self, even on the same day the Wildcats cracked the Associated Press poll for the first time since 1985.

"He said 'You know what guys, what you did Saturday was one of the most exciting things I've ever been through,' and he started to get all teared up," said center Eric Scott. "Then he said 'You know what? It's over, let's move on.' To me, that was amazing because he's been through great victories. If he can just throw it behind him then we can throw it behind us and get ready to go."

Over 40 years in coaching has taught Brooks that seasons are not defined in September. And for a program which has struggled for legitimacy, Brooks knows the 21st-ranked Wildcats (3-0) appearance in the Top 25 will just be a cameo if they can't keep going.

"What we need to do is build on this," Brooks said.

It won't be easy. Kentucky begins SEC play on Saturday at Arkansas (1-1) with a chance to start the season 4-0 for the first time since doing it under Guy Morriss in 2002. That year, however, ended without a bowl bid because the program was on probation for violations under former coach Hal Mumme.

Morriss bolted for Baylor after the season. Enter Brooks, whose first three years were a steady mix of disappointing and disheartening losses. He began last season on the coaching hot seat, and things looked bleak after a rocky start that included a 59-28 rout at the hands of the Cardinals.

Behind the play of quarterback Andre Woodson and the imaginative playcalling of offensive coordinator Joker Phillips, the Wildcats have been one of the better teams in the country over the last 10 months. Kentucky has won eight of its past nine games - including wins over Georgia, Clemson and Louisville - dating back to last season.

But despite all the progress the Wildcats have made, the players don't view Saturday's win over Louisville as the summit, just another step in a process of becoming a contender in one of the nation's toughest conferences.

The memories of Brooks first three years - when Kentucky went a combined 9-25 and won just four conference games - are too fresh for the Wildcats to get too full of themselves.

"Once you've been down in the gutter, you know what it's like," Scott said. "You work your butt off to stay out of it. We've been there. We don't want to become the team that could have been or should have been. We want to become the team that is something to contend with in the SEC."

The players attribute their single-mindedness to Brooks, who never wavered even as the chorus of disapproval grew last year. He remained steadfast in his resolve, and the players rallied around him.

"Everyone understands where we could be, where we want to go and what it takes to get there," Scott said. "I think Coach Brooks understands you can't be satisfied, you can't be happy."

To a degree, they're not. The joy over their ranking was tempered by which team they saw three spots above: Louisville.

"It's crazy," said running back Alfonso Smith. "We beat them, and they're still ranked higher. I don't know what to say about that. We really do have something to prove. It seems like it's a never-ended story, like until we beat USC or something."

Smith laughed as he said it, though the idea of Kentucky competing with the nation's elite isn't quite as funny as it was a year ago.

"I really will do whatever it takes to get the respect," Smith said.

For now, it means trying to put the giddy scene at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday - when thousands of fans stormed the field in the kind of frenzy normally reserved for the school's basketball team - behind them and look ahead to one of the most daunting schedules in the country. In addition to the Razorbacks, the Wildcats face No. 2 LSU, No. 3 Florida and No. 12 South Carolina.

As gratifying as snapping a four-game losing streak to their arch rivals was, Brooks said the Wildcats know better to get caught up in the moment.

"I told my team all along that we're in a marathon, not a sprint, and I'm pleased that we're ranked," Brooks said. "Where we're ranked is not as significant as we're ranked. The hard thing is to stay there. The most difficult thing is to be there at the end of the year, and that's what we would like to achieve."

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