Ron Morris

Morris: USC looking in the mirror at UK

Rich Brooks and Steve Spurrier shook hands after Kentucky lost to South Carolina 24-17.
Rich Brooks and Steve Spurrier shook hands after Kentucky lost to South Carolina 24-17.

South Carolina and Kentucky could swap uniforms before Saturday's game at Williams-Brice Stadium, and most fans would not be able to tell the difference.

A case could be made within each camp for being superior. Yet outside of South Carolina and Kentucky, from a national perspective, the programs are mirror images.

Comparing USC to Kentucky in football is like comparing oranges to tangerines, a Ford Taurus to a Mercury Sable, South Dakota to North Dakota

Both programs are led by veteran coaches who staked claims to fame elsewhere in their respective careers. Both programs have experienced spotty success. Both have hit rock bottom along the way. USC's all-time record rests at .500. Kentucky is eight games above water level.

Most importantly, both USC and Kentucky have fought what seems like a never-ending battle to crack the big three schools of the SECs Eastern Division.

Since 1992, when USC joined the SEC and the league went to a two-division format, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee have won or shared every division title. Try as they might, USC, Kentucky and Vanderbilt never have been able to elbow their way into the top spot.

"That's just the way it's been," USC coach Steve Spurrier said. "It's a constant struggle."

Kentucky's Rich Brooks concurs.

"I just think they're a team that's trying to do what we're trying to do," Brooks said this week of USC. "They're trying to move up the SEC ladder."

Until either can crash the Big Three in the East party, USC and Kentucky will have similar goals each season.

"They're probably a little bit like us in that their No. 1 goal is to have a winning season and go to a bowl and win a bowl game," Spurrier said. "Then certainly they hope someday to have a team that could win the SEC, just like we do."

The fight for each school involves many of the same variables. They battle their history, or lack thereof. They have difficulty recruiting the nation's elite players. Both schools must recruit in their respective states against their chief rival, which means often having to divvy up the top players. Kentucky shoulders the additional burden of operating in the shadow of a high-level basketball program.

Although Kentucky has had greater success -- a pair of SEC championships and two seasons of at least 10 wins -- all of that happened more than three decades ago. For the most part, Kentucky's glory years occurred during the tenure of Bear Bryant from 1946 to 1953.

USC's history probably has fewer peaks and valleys than Kentucky's and has been average overall. An ACC championship in 1969, Joe Morrison's 10-2 season of 1984 and Lou Holtz's back-to-back Outback Bowl victories are the highlights.

Amazingly enough, in more than 1,000 games played by each program, they possess nearly identical all-time records. USC enters Saturday's game with a 531-531-44 record. Kentucky's is 562-554-44.

Kentucky has managed third-place finishes in the SEC East in 1993 and 2006. USC tied for second place in 2000 and 2005 and has finished third in the East five other times. Since 1992, USC has posted eight winning records, compared to five for Kentucky.

"Their history and their tradition is close to ours," Spurrier said. "They haven't done a whole lot in football. They've struggled a bit, probably struggled a little bit more than South Carolina until recently when Rich Brooks has got them winning seasons, winning bowl games, which is pretty good."

Brooks' club has won three consecutive bowl games, giving Kentucky an all-time bowl record of 8-5. USC did not win a bowl game until 1995 and has won four of 10 postseason games all time.

What Spurrier and Brooks appear to have brought to their programs of late is some stability. Brooks needed three consecutive losing seasons to build a foundation at Kentucky. Spurrier has produced five consecutive non-losing seasons, the first time that has happened at USC since 1928-34.

Even Spurrier and Brooks offer similarities. Both are in their 60s, Brooks at 67, Spurrier at 64. Spurrier established his coaching legacy at Florida, where he led the Gators to a national championship in 1996. Brooks made a name for himself at Oregon, where he led the Ducks to a Rose Bowl appearance in 1994. Both coaches failed in brief NFL stints, Spurrier going 12-20 at Washington in 2002 and 2003, and Brooks going 13-19 at St. Louis in 1995 and 1996.

Now both coaches find themselves in position to strengthen their legacies at schools that have not enjoyed sustained success for most of their histories. The next step for both coaches and both programs is to capture an SEC East championship.

Only then will one program distinguish itself from the other.

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