Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks still has his sights set on guiding UK to the top of the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division.
But now the timetable is shorter than Brooks originally planned.
When Brooks arrived at Kentucky in 2003, he said he hoped to become the longest-tenured coach in Wildcats history. Brooks would need to coach this season and three more after that to surpass Fran Curci’s nine-year run.
But Brooks said at SEC Media Days on Wednesday that he doesn’t expect to be on the sideline long enough to accomplish that feat.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said.
Brooks, who will turn 68 on Aug. 20 and has five grandchildren, didn’t specify how much longer he’ll coach before turning the program over to head coach-in-waiting Joker Phillips.
“The handoff is in waiting and we’ll hand it off when the wait is over,” Brooks said. “I’m not sure exactly when that will be.”
When asked what changed his mind, Brooks said matter-of-factly, “I’ve been going to too many memorial services.”
UK players Trevard Lindley and Zipp Duncan, who attended Wednesday’s Media Days activities with Brooks, said the coach hasn’t changed his approach at all.
“He’s still the same hard-nosed, aggressive coach that he has been,” Duncan said.
But Duncan said sometimes he detects subtle hints that Brooks might be thinking about the end of the road.
“In talking sometimes, you can kind of understand that he’s seen a lot of friends pass,” Duncan said. “He’s been in the business a long time, and he might be about ready to retire. But at the same time, he’s brought these guys in and sold them on the program and he doesn’t want to be a guy that just walks out on them. I feel when the time comes he’ll do it in a respectful manner and people will know and understand why he’s moving on.”
Before he rides off into the sunset, Brooks wants to get the Cats over the proverbial hump. The Wildcats have won three straight bowl games for the first time in school history and have knocked off perennial powers Georgia, Clemson and LSU during that stretch.
Brooks wants more.
“We need to climb the ladder,” Brooks said. “This is not good enough. Going to bowl games and winning them isn’t good enough. We need to compete for the SEC championship.”
Brooks believes the fact that he has cultivated a winning climate the past three years will make it easier to carry the program over the top. When Brooks was at Oregon, his teams hovered around the six- to eight-win range for several years before breaking through with a Rose Bowl bid in 1994.
“I think it makes a significant difference, “You’re always trying to talk to them about what it’s going to take to get to that level,”Brooks said. You’re reaching for a higher star, obviously, in trying to be a team that competes for an SEC championship. When you get to a certain level it’s a lot easier to get to that next level, and I think that’s where we are.”
As for this year’s team, Brooks expects the Cats to make it to their fourth straight bowl game, and he’d also like to knock off even more of the big boys. Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina are three teams UK has lengthy losing streaks against.
“Realistically, I think we’re a team that should be in the post-season again, I think realistically we should beat some teams that we haven’t beaten in awhile, and we better beat some teams that we haven’t beaten in awhile, because there’s a lot of them on our schedule.”
Duncan said the players want to make sure that whenever Brooks decides to hang it up, he does it on a high note.
“Three bowl games is a start,” Duncan said. “But at the same time, he’s given us all opportunities to come in and play and sold us on the program. The mind-set on the team is definitely to send him out, whenever he wants to go, as a winner and as a coach that Kentucky fans will remember for turning around the program and moving it in the right direction.”