Football Fever. In Lexington. In the Winter.

Coach Hinshaw and Coach Stoops. (Photo by Victoria Graff)

A funny thing happened last February right in the midst of a typically exciting Kentucky basketball season.

Big Blue Nation stopped for a day, took its minds off the kids on the court and diverted its attention to College Football National Signing Day.

That’s the day that Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, Florida State and Oklahoma usually divvy up the best of the high school football players and then turn what’s left over to the other schools in line.

Usually standing toward the rear of the line, checking basketball scores on its iPhone, is Kentucky. Often there’s not much left by the time Kentucky football gets to stick its hand into the bag.

That’s not to say that Kentucky football hasn’t thrilled us with the occasional Randall Cobb or Wesley Woodyard or Bud Dupree. But football is a different sport, with huge manpower needs and any number of moving parts. A single player at a single position can be thrilling – who here can forget those amazing Tim Couch years? – but even with Couch, the No. 1 pick in the 1998 NFL draft, the Cats were a sub-.500 team with a single Outback Bowl defeat.

Things here began to brighten when Mark Stoops took over. With his staff’s recruiting tentacles reaching into Ohio, Florida, Texas and Georgia, Kentucky began drawing high school players away from Ohio State, Florida and Oklahoma. The chemistry and intensity that Stoops, Vince Marrow and other coaches exuded was clearly a factor.

So was the promise that coming to an SEC school, the conference with its own Saturday afternoon national TV program and the biggest gemstone in the world of football, and starting quickly, making an immediate impact, maybe even achieving some wins, would pay dividends. Headlines. All-conference recognition. NFL possibilities.

And so some very promising young footballers began to don Kentucky blue (or the occasional silver or black or checkerboard). They come here to make a difference.

But not much felt different. Especially after the 0-2 start to 2016, following the horrendous blowing of a 35-17 halftime lead against Southern Mississippi, a devastating 45-7 loss to Florida and the loss, as well, of the starting quarterback.

By mid-November, after consecutive losses to Georgia and Tennessee, the Cats sat at 5-5, with a gimme game against Austin Peay that would guarantee a six-win season, a probable low-level bowl invitation and incremental improvement, more or less.

Then came Louisville! And after all the angst and patience-testing of the Stoops years, azalea bushes were suddenly budding in November.

The effects of Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw to create an offense suited to Stephen Johnson’s limited set of abilities. A worrisome defense suddenly revived under the examples of Jordan Jones and Denzil Ware. An all-SEC safety in Mike Edwards. A veteran offensive line anchored by All-American Jon Toth.

And, most of all, Benjamin Snell Jr., perhaps the best freshman running back in Kentucky football history. (Maybe I’ll get some feedback on this from some older-line Kentucky fans.)

So when February came, and all those high school prospects we’d heard about, the ones Stoops & Co. had been romancing and getting tentative commitments from, were about to make it official, Big Blue Nation pulled the pigskin out from the back of the toy box, began fingering the laces and twirling it in the air, tapping it palm to palm and maybe even tossing a few spirals into the wintry sky.

As Kentucky fans know, from two sports now, recruits don’t necessarily translate into stars. The excitement generated by the likes of Danny Clark, Josh Paschal, Javonte Richardson, Clevan Thomas and the others may or may not pay dividends this fall. College football is always a tough gig for freshmen, and many of the most promising get red-shirted. Or see only special teams action.

And the excitement of the 2018 class – Alex Reigelsperger, Cadarius Gaskin, Jarren Williams, Davoan Hawkins, Marvin Alexander – has to be tempered by the fact that nothing is conclusive. Alabama, Michigan and Florida keep circling the boat.

But the Cats had never before beaten a Bobby Petrino-coached Louisville team. They hadn’t had a thousand-yard rusher since Rafael Little in 2007. A freshman? Never. Two in one season? Never. They hadn’t been to a bowl game since the 2010 season.

There’s suddenly the feeling of promise and excitement on the new Commonwealth Stadium gridiron. More than a few Saturday afternoons on CBS.

In October, that could be thrilling. But in February? When had that happened before? VT