LEXINGTON, Ky. – Glenn Riggs figures he’s been a Kentucky football fan for about 54 years, the same number he’s been alive, because in his family, you’re born into it. That loyalty has not often rewarded him.
The Wildcats have posted just 13 winning seasons in his lifetime, the last coming in 2009.
“Every year, I get caught up in the hype,” Riggs said, “so I get let down a lot.”
And yet, there he was Saturday at Kentucky’s fan day, unable to suppress a smile as he clutched a 2016 team poster freshly signed by the players and coaches. He practically skipped onto the Cats’ new practice field to watch an open preseason workout, but not before pressing his nose into the glass of a glittering new training center nearby for a peek inside.
“I’m feeling something special this year,” he said. “Like it could be the year they turn a corner.”
Fans pressed up against the glass to see into the new weight room. pic.twitter.com/UWy6nZDOFy
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_AJC) August 6, 2016
That was a common sentiment throughout the crowd of roughly 2,000 fans who showed up for signatures and an early look at this new crop of Wildcats. Coach Mark Stoops heads into his fourth season with his deepest and most talented team yet – at least on paper.
Jordan Warren, a 31-year-old season-ticket holder from about an hour away in London, Ky., wanted to see for himself. Hopped up on hope, he arrived for the 9 a.m. event promptly at 7:50.
“I’m about 90 percent we can get six wins,” Warren said, denoting the magic number for bowl eligibility. Kentucky hasn’t been to one of those since 2010.
The Wildcats have come agonizingly close the last two seasons, starting 5-1 and 4-1 and finishing both campaigns 5-7 and home for the holidays. “Bowl or bust” is a phrase being thrown around a lot lately. But is it?
“Not so much for this team,” Warren said, “but from a recruiting standpoint, it probably is. Stoops has been incredible so far getting talent to Lexington, but I think it’s going to be tougher if he doesn’t make a bowl this year to keep guys we have committed. And some of the guys that we’re on their short list, it’s going to be hard to win them over with another losing season.”
Good thing that’s not happening then, said 21-year-old fan Tommy Townsend.
These Cats are making the postseason – “easy,” he said. “We’re going bowling. The talent we have this year is just crazy, dude.” And what about the head coach whose name is suddenly popping up on hot-seat lists this summer? He inspires only confidence in Townsend and many who showed up Saturday.
“It’s the way he carries himself,” Townsend said. “The past years, it’s been like, ‘This is what we hope to do.’ But this year, like SEC Media Days, he just came straight and was like, ‘We are going bowling this year.’ That kind of confidence from a coach has to rub off on the players and on everybody.”
But what if UK doesn’t deliver results this fall? What will become of the faithful, fewer of whom have bought season tickets this year than last, if a bowl game eludes the Wildcats once again?
“It’ll be a hit,” said Hubert Hall, who came to UK for dental school in 1970 and has been a booster for nearly 40 years, “but I think they see you’ve got to have time to build, to change the culture. I think you’d have to give him one more year. These are his players now and you can see we’ve got more depth, look more like an SEC team.”
He doesn’t just mean the players. Hall pointed to Commonwealth Stadium in front of him and the training center behind him, the renovation and construction of which have cost about $171 million in the last three years.
“We’ve finally made a commitment to football,” Hall said. “We’ve made some missteps – I’ve sat through a lot of cold, rainy days just to watch them lose – but now we’re making more of the correct moves. And I think Stoops is the right guy, going at it the right way.”
When fans filed from the autograph line to UK’s practice field Saturday, they got a good look at what the coach has been busy assembling. They saw former high school All-American Drew Barker zipping passes to a long line of towering receivers who look more like the freakish athletes at Alabama than the pitiful collection of wideouts Stoops inherited in 2013.
They saw barrel-chested linebackers that most of the league – this one, the SEC, not the MAC – also recruited. They saw defensive backs gliding along and leaping aloft and returning interceptions – not of Barker – for touchdowns.
They yelped with delight. Two years of near misses might’ve shaken some fans’ belief in Kentucky’s coach, but not these people.
“I love Stoops,” Warren said. “I think he’s awesome, because I’ve always had the mindset you’ve got to get a guy in here who can recruit. If you can consistently stay in the top 25, top 30 (recruiting classes), whereas before we were in the top 50, top 60, the talent gap is closing.”
Stoops has done that part, but the question now is whether he can deliver the payoff.
“I’m of the mind,” Warren said, “that if he can’t do it, who can?”
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.