Coach's Q&A: Rich Brooks

Veteran head coach still going strong at Kentucky

May 23, 2007

By Steve Brauntuch

Special to CSTV.com

 



Steve Brauntuch

Steve Brauntuch is a researcher for CSTV and contributor to CSTV.com.
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After he left the Atlanta Falcons in 2000, no one would have blamed Rich Brooks for riding off into the sunset.  He had coached for four decades on the high school, college and professional levels.  He led Oregon to its first Rose Bowl in 37 years.  He was named National Coach of the Year.  And he even coached in the Super Bowl.  So in 2003, Brooks surprised some people when he was named the head coach at Kentucky, taking on a new, sizeable challenge at age 61.

 

But any doubters were silenced last season, when Brooks led the Wildcats to an eight-win season and a trip to the Music City Bowl.  It was Kentucky's winningest campaign since 1984.  This fall, with star QB Andre' Woodson leading the way, Kentucky is in position not only for a second straight winning season, but perhaps to contend for an SEC title.  Before embarking on a summer of strategizing, Brooks spoke about rebuilding the Wildcats, the history of the program and his NFL experience.


 

 

 

SB: Kentucky won eight games last season for the first time in more than two decades.  What do you think was the biggest key to your success?

RB: Well, I think we finally got over the hurdle of the probation that I inherited when I came in here and have continued to develop the good recruiting and get our numbers back up to close to the 85 scholarships.  When I came, we had 68.  So I think that we finally closed the gap talent-wise on some of our opponents in the league.

 

SB: When you took over the job at Kentucky in 2003, what was the biggest challenge you faced in making this program competitive?

RB: We needed to recruit better players.  We needed speed, we needed size, and we needed to get a little bit of a change of attitude as well.  It's a process.  I don't think there's any one magic moment, but certainly being able to go on the road after getting embarrassed last year by LSU... we had a week off, we went back to basics.  The players embraced it.  We got a victory against Mississippi State, coming from behind in the 4th quarter.  We came from behind twice against Georgia the next week, and I think that was really the turning point in the season when we were able to beat a team that we hadn't beaten in 10 years, beat one of the powers of the league.  And that carried us forward into the Music City Bowl.

 

SB: You won 3 games in 2005 and 8 games last season.  Were you surprised at the turnaround that your team experienced?

RB: No, I felt we could be a winning football team and go to a bowl game based on what I felt we had in the talent area and improving.  We had played 14 true freshmen two years ago and 13 true freshmen last year.  Playing them early was starting to pay off because they not only had some talent, but they also had some experience, and we were a very, very young football team last year.

 

SB: Andre' Woodson had a breakout season last year as well.  What do you think has been the biggest change in his game over the course of time that you've worked with him?

RB: Andre' made one of the biggest turnarounds between his sophomore and junior year of any player I've ever coached - understanding what it took to play quarterback in the SEC, to be successful at this level.  He made a commitment off the field to study more himself, to be more involved, more accountable.  He became an outspoken leader on the football team, and I really believe that he is as gifted as any quarterback in the nation and should be on all the All American and Heisman Trophy watch lists this year.

 

SB: What needs to happen this season for you to not only have a winning record, but to contend for the SEC title?

RB: We need to improve as much defensively as we did offensively last year.  We return most of our offense.  We need to replace a few linemen, but the significant improvement that needs to be made if we're going to be a factor in the conference race for the championship is that we have to make a definite improvement on defense.  Three of our last four games were good on defense, good enough to win in this league, against Georgia, Tennessee and Clemson.  Before those games, we had played very poorly.  We couldn't get off the field on third down.  People were able to run the football too easily on us.  We, I think, have upgraded our talent on the defensive line and in the secondary.  Our linebackers return, but we had 19, I think, of the 22 players in our depth chart on defense were either freshmen or sophomores last year, and the experience that they gained and how we played at the end of the year, I'm hoping, foretells a marked improvement on our overall defense throughout the season for the coming year.

 

SB: Do you think the SEC is the toughest conference in college football?

RB: I do.  Clearly, I've had experience in the Pac-10, but when you look at the league top to bottom and considering we were one of the bottom dwellers for the last several years until this past season, it is a very difficult league.  And the biggest difference to me is there's probably six or eight teams every year that are capable of being in the top 10 in the nation.  And the thing that stops many teams in the SEC at the end of the year is that we beat each other up.  And defensively, there are great defensive teams in this league.  If you look at the statistical analysis at the end of the season, you're going to see at least three or four or five SEC teams in the top 10 in total defense.

 

SB: The Atlanta Journal Constitution did a poll in December and found that the Kentucky football coaching job was the 10th best job in the SEC.  What's your reaction to that poll?

RB: I believe we have outstanding facilities here.  We have a great fan base.  We've been in the top 25, top 30 in attendance in the nation in football without a lot of success in previous years.  We took at least 50,000 people to the Music City Bowl.  They will follow.  It's just a historical thing where Kentucky hasn't been consistent in football.  But we hope to change that, and that happened at Oregon when I was there.  We started winning and going to bowl games.  We had consistency in our staff.  There are still six guys at Oregon that were on my staff.  Mike Bellotti was my coordinator, and he continued the success and turned the fortunes of how people look at Oregon football totally around.

 

SB: You were the head coach at Oregon for 18 seasons, but you struggled at first when you got to Oregon to make that team competitive.  Were you surprised that they showed as much patience with you as they did during those first few seasons?

RB: Not really, because at Oregon, we had no facilities.  The stadium was only half full when I went there.  It hadn't had a lot of success, and I think people were more patient in those days.  Coaches didn't make very much money, and we had financial problems as an athletic department at Oregon when I went there.  We built that one from totally the bottom up.  It needed everything infused into that program.  When I came here to Kentucky, we already had a great fan base.  We already had very good facilities.  We had the finances.  It was just a matter of upgrading the talent level and changing some attitudes.

 

SB: What has been your proudest moment in your career thus far as a college football coach?

RB: Well, I've had so many of them.  It's a difficult question to answer.  But certainly, the Music City Bowl win to get the first bowl win in 22 years here at Kentucky has to be there.  Winning the first outright Pac-10 championship at the University of Oregon, when we did that in 1994 and then went to the Rose Bowl.  And the similar feeling walking into the Rose Bowl and walking into the Music City Bowl, when you look up and you see your color in the stands. We were at least half the stadium in the Rose Bowl with Penn State, and we were clearly more than half the stadium in the Music City Bowl.  And when you see fans respond like that, it's very gratifying.

 

SB: You coached in the NFL for a long time.  What is the biggest difference between coaching in college and coaching in the NFL?

RB: I think there's a more genuine excitement with things in the college game, and the SEC is the epitome of that.  When you go travel around to different stadiums, the tailgating, the fans who get behind their team - there is, I think, a little more loyalty from the fans for an institution because most of them, if they haven't gone to school there, they have been following the programs for years and they stick with them through the ups and downs, even though they may voice their views very strongly when things aren't going well.  They really want not only the program to do well, the team, but they also want the institution to be well-represented.

 

SB: Why do you think so many college football coaches can't make the transition successfully from being a college head coach to an NFL head coach?

RB: I think I would not say that that's totally true.  I think the NFL is a free agency, salary cap league now.  And it is very difficult for any one team anymore to last very long at the top.  And usually when people are hiring college head coaches, you're getting hired by teams that are in the bottom of that process before they get built back up.  My tenure, when I went into the Rams as a head coach, I won 13 games in two years when they had won 7 the previous two.  But that wasn't good enough, so I was out, and that's just kind of the way the business goes.  Unfortunately, the old days, when I first coached in the NFL, you could identify totally the team with the players, because there was not a lot of moving from one team to another - very, very little.  There was no free agency, there was no salary cap, and it was different in the Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Roman Gabriel days in my first job with the Los Angeles Rams.  It has totally changed now, where the players are making so much money and the salary cap dictates whether you can trade a guy, cut a guy or not.  And usually the problem, if there is a problem, is going to be resolved from ownership's end by firing the coach rather than firing the player.

 

SB: You took over for Dan Reeves with the Atlanta Falcons at the end of the 1998 regular season while he was on medical leave.  Be honest - do you think you deserve the bulk of the credit for taking them to the Super Bowl?

RB: No, I don't think I deserve a lot of credit for taking them to the Super Bowl.  I was the defensive coordinator.  We had a great year on defense, and Dan had obviously a major health issue.  All I was able to do against Detroit and Miami - we went on the road against Detroit - as the interim head coach and basically tried to keep things the way they were.  We had them running very well, and I think Dan had done a great job with that team.  We were playing very good on defense, taking the ball away.  Our offense was productive with [Jamal] Anderson running the football and [Chris] Chandler throwing it.  I just kind of kept it together, and we finally got the first round bye, and Dan was able to come back after that for the 49ers game and then up at Minnesota to win the NFC Championship.

 

SB: When you were the head coach of the Rams in 1996, you drafted Eddie Kennison with the 18th pick of the NFL Draft.  The 19th pick that year was Marvin Harrison.  Do you still have nightmares about that pick?

RB: No, I don't.  I think Eddie Kennison has proven to be a great player.  He also was a super return man as a rookie for us.  He was the fastest guy in the NFL when they had those races - they used to run the fastest man in the NFL.  He was, I thought, a great player and still playing.  I think if he were in an offense as long as Marvin has been with a quarterback throwing to him, I think he would have similar or better numbers.