Then and now with John Clay



Sept. 3, 1980

Cats need respect off the field too

As the Kentucky football Wildcats slide into the fabulously wonderful 1980s, looking for joy, happiness and championships, one fact is becoming increasingly clear. Sooner or later, UK will have to come to grips with an image problem that has plagued the Kentucky program since 1975

It used to be that the Wildcats did not have a football image. Teams that win two or three games a season and spend the holidays at home instead of at bowls are usually not blessed with such things. But winning is more of a possibility at UK than a faint hope these days. Even this year, there is reasonable hope that the Cats might make it to a bowl for the second time in five years.

But the problem is off the field. It is the sum of the parts of other disruptions all revolving around discipline, pride and the basic principals of a university.

There was the Elmore Stephens problem. There was the Sonny Collins problem. There was the dormitory problem. Last year, it was the theft problem — a motorcycle, athletic equipment and a stereo. Now there is the Pete Venable problem. The list could read on and on if one wanted to look deeper.

These incidents have led the Wildcats to embarrassment, humiliation and shame. Football players represent a university wherever they go. But even in their own state they are the subjects of commonplace jokes and wisecracks.

Of course, Fran Curci, UK’s football coach who is entering his eighth season as director of Wildcat fortunes, does not like to hear such talk. It takes the attention from what he considers his real task — that of winning. These days, coaches aren’t paid to be tutors, or teachers as much as they are paid to fill stadium and get bowl invitations. And there is no doubt Curci has done that.

So Fran turns elsewhere. He has been known to make the press the guys in the black hats. He stays aloof from his players. He says that most of the time the player’s actions are beyond his control.

This is not to say that Curci does not know that a problem exists. He knows the situation all too well. He must explain it every time he sits down with a potential recruit and the parents ask, “What is really going on up in Lexington?”

One would think that by now he is growing weary of explaining and re-explaining. Or, as he did at press day, not discussing the problem at all. “They are suspended. Period,” he told one reporter when asked about the Venable and Greg Wimblerly suspensions on press day.

Once, Curci tried to clear up the enigma. That was his famous televised press conference where Curci announced the suspension of the eight for dormitory violations after a grand jury had failed to indict them on rape charges.

Unfortunately, to most observers, Curci came off as a bitter man trying to justify problems by turning the blame.

Fran should not feel alone. College athletics in general, and football more recently, have felt the brunt of scandal and disturbance. Last year it was the New

Mexico scandal. More recently there was the amazing Pac 10 probations. In this day and time it is almost unbelievable that half of an entire conference would be put on probation by its own peers.

The mystery now is when will this all stop. The arrests, the problems, the corruption. Now that UK has achieved respectability on the field, can they do the same off the field as well.

Cats need to earn respect on the field too

Climbing into the way-back machine, 1980 seems a long time ago and growing longer.

While there appears to be some similarities to oh so long ago, UK football has actually flipped the script.

In the decline of the once shining Fran Curci Era, the Cats were respectable on the field, though on the early cusp of a slide. The program’s real problem was the alarming frequency players appeared on the police blotter. It painted not only Curci and crew, but the entire university in a bad light.

Joker Phillips’ Cats haven’t presented many off-the-field problems. Oh, there’s been a Ridge Wilson (booted from the team after a drug trafficking charge) here and a Marcus Caffey (presumed starter now academically ineligible) there. By and large, however, the Cats have received generally high citizenship marks.

That’s less so with what’s happening on the field.

Fran Curci’s 1980 hot seat turned into a pink slip in 1981 in part because he had lost control of his players. Joker Phillips is on the hot seat now, but the heat comes from the play of his players, the 5-7 record a season ago, a season which included a 51-point loss at South Carolina and a 30-point loss at Vanderbilt.

There’s another difference. Curci was a media nightmare, combative, surly and stubbornly uncooperative, especially when things were going bad. Phillips has been the opposite this fall camp, meeting with reporters each day after practice, often joking around, setting a steady example.

Hopeful for a bowl year, Kentucky ended up a dreadful 3-8 in 1980 with a meager 1-5 mark in the SEC. Curci was allowed one more shot at a turnaround but another 3-8 record sent him packing.

The headline back then was “Cats need respect off the field too.”

The headline now would be “Cats need to earn respect on the field too.”