Our story begins in Seattle. Not with a dateline, but with a look back at a moment. It happened on Friday, March 30, 1984, in the Kingdome, site of that season’s Final Four.
You might remember it because Kentucky would play Georgetown the next day and lose in a nightmarish flurry of missed shots in the second half.
But it’s relevant to our story because Game One matched the explosive Houston Cougars of Akeem Olajuwon with the Virginia Cavaliers and no, THAT team did not feature Ralph Sampson.
The four-time college Player of the Year had moved on to the NBA after leading the Cavs to just one Final Four and yet, UVA managed to win its way to college basketball’s biggest weekend without him.
And that’s why the moment is so relevant. Virginia coach Terry Holland had just finished his turn at the podium at the Friday news conference. As he began to make his way back to the locker room, he was surrounded by writers looking for additional information as to how he managed to get a team back to the Final Four with Olden Polynice at center, when the year before the Cavs, with Sampson in the middle, couldn’t get there.
“Guys,” he said, “I’m not the genius you’re making me out to be this year, just like I’m not the idiot you thought I was last year.”
Nearly 40 years later, it still resonates.
Was Liam Coen a genius last season? Is Rich Scangarello an idiot this year? A vocal portion of the Big Blue Nation would weight in with a resounding “yes” on this one but, it says here, not so fast, my friend.
Coen stepped into a terrific opportunity and made the most of it. He had a veteran offensive front that would send three starters to NFL camps, including Luke Fortner, the highest-rated rookie lineman in the league so far this year.
Wan’Dale Robinson, in his lone season in blue, left a legacy for the record books.
And the quarterback, a guy Coen recruited through the portal, was a perfect fit, Will Levis racking up enough yards and TDs that he was in the pre-season conversation this year as a dark horse Heisman candidate.
As heady as things were in 2021, it’s all gone sour in 2022.
These words have been typed in this space before — When you read comments by someone demanding that a coach be fired, substitute this phrase: “I’m angry, and someone needs to be punished.”
That, in my opinion, is what’s been happening much of this season with the UK offense. It’s frustrating enough to create a pallor that hangs over the program with the clock seemingly running down on Scangarello’s time in Lexington.
And perhaps Mark Stoops will part company with an offensive coordinator after just one season for the second time in his career (Coen left of his own volition. Shannon Dawson did not).
Has Scangarello made puzzling play calls? Yes, at times. OCs often do. Is his system, heavy on pre-snap verbiage, too complicated for a UK team that had an abundance of new faces lining up this season? Apparently so, if you listen to Stoops’ comments about how they need to “dumb down” some of the offense.
But from here it seems this is the biggest question: Isn’t this the same offense that sprang to life in The Swamp, working in concert with the defense to beat an admittedly run-of-the-mill Florida team but still, a win over the Gators is always huge.
And didn’t this offense help bring Kentucky back, again on the road, at Ole Miss to the point where the Wildcats were celebrating a potentially game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds (only to have the TD taken away by a heart-breaking flag)?
It put up 27 points on a Mississippi State defense that, at the time, was one of the most formidable in the SEC. It produced a game-winning drive against Missouri and, perhaps most impressively of all, a 99-yard scoring drive against the nation’s top-ranked team, the Georgia Bulldogs.
In fact, the 16-6 loss to the Dawgs was a microcosm of the season so far. The UK defense held UGA at bay, giving the offense a chance to shorten the game and get it into the fourth quarter, when anything can happen.
And it came through but only to a point. With the margin of error razor-thin, as it so often is when you’re challenging Number One, Kentucky receivers dropped a couple of passes at the worst time and Will Levis misfired on two crucial incompletions, not to mention yet another red zone interception.
Was any of that Scangarello’s fault? It says here, no. To be sure, he mixed in some head-scratchers, including the failed two-point try after the Wildcats’ lone touchdown.
There’s enough blame to go around. Last year, the blockers blocked, the receivers received (Wan’Dale and Josh Ali) and the QB was able to stand and deliver from a pocket that’s been almost non-existent this season. Levis has been scrambling for his life almost from Opening Day. Chris Rodriguez far too often has had to create his own running space, with precious few lanes opened by the Big Blue Wall, compared to last year.
There will be changes in the off-season, to be sure. Rodriguez will be in the NFL, as will Levis. We know there will be someone new starting at quarterback; maybe someone currently on the roster but quite possibly someone emerging from the portal.
The O-line will work to get better (and the portal might come in handy here, too) as will UK’s corps of dynamic young receivers.
Will there be a new offensive scheme? A new system? A new coordinator? Perhaps. But if players don’t execute, it doesn’t matter who’s calling the plays. Critics will demand punishment.