More than a game: Cats honor their coach in Vandy victory


Kentucky Wildcats defensive lineman Joshua Paschal (4) and offensive lineman coach John Schlarman walk off the field after the UK vs Florida football game on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. Florida won 29-21. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Eric Decker

Kentucky desperately needed the 38-35 win it got over Vanderbilt on Saturday afternoon. Sure, getting to 3-4 was nice. But honoring John Schlarman, a man who epitomized Kentucky football both on and off the field, was much more important.

Schlarman had relationships with players regardless of position group, but his most cherished and closest came with those he oversaw: the offensive linemen. Some of these bonds began way before most were even sure they were going to play ball in Lexington.

Senior offensive tackle Landon Young has known Coach Schlarman since he was a freshman in high school. He came out of the locker room Saturday sporting his coach’s old playing number (No. 65), and stayed on the sideline as the Cats sent out only four linemen on their opening play. They took a delay of game, leaving Schlarman’s left guard position open in tribute.

From there on, a somber but transcendent aura filled the stadium.

“It was sort of a cumulative effort… [The staff] wanted to go ahead and take the penalty, have a moment of silence sort of for Coach, show that we were missing a Wildcat,” Young said postgame. “We actually decided in the pregame to sort of bump Luke out to tackle for that very first play… Coach Schlarman was a guard when he played here.”

“He’s a guard at heart. We wanted to leave that spot open to show where he played and represent that number well.”

“It was important to all of us,” head coach Mark Stoops said after the game. “But certainly [for] that group, it’s personal.” 

Schlarman was the lifeline of Kentucky’s football program. The architect of the famed Big Blue Wall, he paved a way of perseverance and commitment for these men to follow. All while fighting for his own life.

Running back Chris Rodriguez told reporters it was obvious how hurt his blockers were from the news.

“As soon as they figured out, I could see it on their faces,” he said. “Coach Stoops had a couple words for us, showed us a video that we made… you could just see in their faces that they’re really sad.”

Rodriguez then told a story about how the trench coach hyped him up and inspired him to go hard every day.

“Before I really started playing for real, Coach Schlarman would always come up to me like ‘Yeah, hey run that M fer over.’, you know? ‘Do this!’… I really liked that,” he said. “Coming to practice… he’s hurting, and you can see it in his face, and you can only think, ‘Man, he’s out here’… Sometimes I go to practice and I’m like ‘I really don’t want to be here.’ But then you look at that man and you see everything he’s going through, every day he was there… he was a strong human being.”

Rodriguez and Schlarman’s Crew came out swinging from the jump, dictating the attitude on the opening drive that ended with a Terry Wilson 15-yard touchdown toss to Justin Rigg. From then on, the line continued imposing its will. It paved the way for 308 yards rushing – 149 from Rodriguez on just 13 attempts, including 74-yard scoring scamper – and didn’t allow a single sack in a nearly-flawless spectacle.

“They wanted to honor John and play a very tough, physical game,” Stoops said. “Like the way Coach Schlarman lived. They did that.”

Now through the immediate aftermath, handling and grieving with reality only toughens.

“[We lost] more than a member of our family… we lost our coach, someone that was basically a father figure to every single offensive lineman that’s come through this program.” Young, fighting tears, said. 

If it wasn’t clear, coach Schlarman’s death wasn’t just the passing of a football coach, nor that of a community figure and leader. For the Cats, it’s the loss of a teacher, mentor and friend. One whose legacy they’ll ensure lives on forever.