SMITH: Nothing like a trip to the Conch Republic

Loran Smith

Kentucky football has never reached the level of Wildcat basketball over the years and some of that probably has to do with the weather. Before you laugh, think about the fact that it gets cold in the Bluegrass state in late fall and winter, which is a time to find your way indoors.

Every backyard in Kentucky has always featured a basketball goal. It is a game you can play by yourself. You don’t have to get up a team. It only takes a younger brother. Or sister. Kids play the game year-round but there was always a gymnasium of some type nearby when the temperatures began dropping. Basketball became the sport of choice in Kentucky. (This, of course, is exempting horse racing, which is another story.)

Erk Russell always thought Kentucky would be a great place to coach football. He didn’t understand why more outstanding players wouldn’t want to experience the bluegrass environment. Nobody was ever more chagrinned about that than Paul “Bear” Bryant. When he was at Kentucky, Bryant could not convince Paul Hornung, a prep star at Flaget High in Louisville, to sign with the Wildcats. Hornung enrolled at Notre Dame. Paul’s freshman year in South Bend, 1954, was the year Bryant moved on to Texas A&M. The handwriting was on the wall.

Bryant told Bud Wilkinson of Oklahoma in 1951, after he had won the SEC championship in football and Adolph Rupp had won another NCAA basketball title: “The other night we had a joint football-basketball banquet and Rupp was presented with a big four-door Cadillac. All I got was a cigarette lighter.”

None of that dissuaded Erk, who loved competition across the board. He was especially anxious to make a legal wager. He enjoyed outings at the dog tracks in Jacksonville, which were in reasonable proximity to his second home at Fernandina Beach.

One year in the late '60s for a night game in Lexington, which was the way it was for years with Georgia and Kentucky playing under the lights so as not to compete with the afternoon races at Keeneland, a group of us was headed to the horse track about noon.

Erk handed over a couple of dollars to Furman Bisher, sports columnist for the Atlanta Journal, and asked Furman to bet the daily double for him. With that, he took the number “six” from Steve Greer’s jersey, No. 60 and a “five” from Harold Tarrer’s No. 55 for the two horses for his wager. Erk had the right hunch when choosing the players’ numbers for his bet. He won the daily double.

On the plane home, Erk slipped his winnings to the players, which might have broken a rule, but made the players’ day, which made the defensive coordinator’s day. Erk was always about the players.

The long time Bulldog assistant could see himself spending his down time at Keeneland, extolling the virtues of the Bluegrass State to recruits on their recruiting visits to Kentucky. Based on what he accomplished at Georgia Southern, Erk might have been a good bet for Kentucky if they had known of his affinity for the Lexington environment.

Kentucky has had some notable football stars from Howard Schnellenberger, Babe Parilli, Bob Gain, Lou Michaels and Jeff Van note to Art Still and Tim Couch. In addition to Bryant, the Wildcats were coached by Jerry Claiborne, who was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. Blanton Collier, who later became head coach of the Cleveland Browns, was also the Wildcats head coach.

In the Georgia series, the Wildcats have lost a number of games over the years, which could have gone their way. Remember 1978, Rex Robinson’s field goal with three seconds left and Larry Munson’s description of the kick through the uprights, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Georgia winning 17-16.

There were a number of others but one of the hardest won games came in 1959 when Georgia wound up winning the SEC title and defeated Missouri in the Orange Bowl. This was Fran Tarkenton’s junior year. The Bulldogs won 14-7 on a bitterly cold night, but did not score an offensive point.

It took two sensational defensive plays for the Bulldogs to remain in the conference race. Larry Lancaster blocked a punt for Georgia’s first score and late in game Bobby Towns intercepted a pass and sprinted 43 yards for what turned out to be the winning touchdown.

In conversations with Kentucky’s Mike Stoops, of the Youngstown, Ohio Stoops clan, he has been trying to sell Ohio players on the notion that if they come to Kentucky, they can play in the mighty SEC.

Although there was a hiccup last weekend in Columbia, Mo., Stoops believes, he is headed in the right direction with his program.

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