LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Once upon a time they were Tennessee Volunteers, proud and orange and victorious every football season against Kentucky.
But Randy Sanders and Tee Martin now earn their paychecks coaching the Wildcats, which means their rather daunting task Saturday is to help UK break its 27-game losing streak against the Big Orange.
To make matters worse, ending that streak -- which is the nation's most futile active losing skid -- is really the only thing Big Blue has to play for, since its 4-7 record (1-6 in Southeastern Conference play) snaps its bowl streak at five.
"It's still an interesting game," said Sanders, who joined the UK staff in 2006 after spending 22 years with UT from 1984 to 2005 as a player or coach.
"The fact that it's Tennessee doesn't make much of an impact until after the game. Then if you lose it hurts a little more, and if we win it will be a little sweeter. But until it's over, you're preparing for it just like it's any other SEC game."
Added Martin: "It's been rough. But my first year at New Mexico we went 1-11, so I've had tough seasons before."
It has been a tough enough season for UK second-year head coach Joker Phillips that many wonder if he'll return for a third. In the six SEC losses to date, the Cats have been outscored 222-54 overall, or an average of 37-9.
Kentucky's lone league win was a 30-13 victory over hapless Ole Miss, which already has fired Houston Nutt.
More bad news for Big Blue Nation? The relative strength of this UK team, its defense, graduates five starters, including the Wildcats' best player -- All-America linebacker Danny Trevathan -- and superb cover cornerback Randall Burden.
So there's scant chance that UK will be more than marginally better a year from now, and that's assuming that Phillips can land a stellar recruiting class as rumors about his job security continue to swirl. Beyond that, UK must play at Florida, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Louisville while hosting LSU and Georgia, making a rebound tougher.
"Joker's job is safe for this season," said Oscar Combs, the founder of UK fan magazine, The Cats Pause, during Wednesday night's Kentucky basketball romp over Radford.
But others aren't so sure. Larry Vaught, the longtime sports editor of the Danville Advocate Messenger, said Wednesday, "You're hearing everything. It wouldn't surprise me either way."
Even freshman running back D.J. Warren from Knoxville-area Alcoa High School said of the entire UK season, "It's been crazy."
Asked what Alcoa's record was during his senior year, Warren said, "Fifteen and O."
His junior year?
"Fifteen and O."
So how hard has it been on Warren?
"It's tough to lose, but we're working hard, we're getting better," he said. "You just hate to see this group of seniors go out this way. We just really want to win for them."
And it is within those words that Sanders has found his few proud moments in this bitter Big Blue autumn.
"It's actually been rewarding in a number of ways," he said. "Obviously, you like to see results on the field -- wins, points, production. But our kids have never quit working hard. They come to practice trying to get better every single day.
"They've bought into what we're trying to sell as an offensive staff. Whether you've got a lot of ability or not, if you get the most out of the ability you have, that's always rewarding for a coach."
And UK's athletic ability has been sorely tested from the beginning by numerous injuries in the offensive line, in the backfield and at quarterback, where starter Morgan Newton has been banged up from the first week forward, necessitating the rushed development of true freshman Maxwell Smith, who is expected to start against UT.
"I've been at this a long time," Sanders said, "and I don't know if I've ever had a year quite like this one. Maybe, for a little while, that 2002 season at Tennessee when Casey Clausen got hurt and we ended up having to start [receiver] James Banks at quarterback a couple of times. But I don't know if we've had the lineup we thought we'd have once all year."
Martin is especially hopeful Phillips remains.
"This is the first time in nine years that I've been in the same job two years in a row," said the man who quarterbacked the Vols to the 1998 national title. "I changed jobs for eight straight years. That's hard on your family. We're happy here. We want to stay.
And odds are they will. Few coaches are fired after two seasons, especially former players such as Phillips, who was a star on the last UK team to beat UT in 1984.
"When you stop believing, that's when you have problems," Sanders said. "Our kids still believe."
But for the Big Blue Nation to believe in Phillips, the Cats certainly need next year to be noticeably better than this one.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...