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Mizzou Moves To The SEC: The Bear, Creative Recruiting, And Strange Consistency

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They have won more than eight games just four times in their history. They have finished ranked just three times since 1953. But one must give Kentucky this: they've been interesting. It's one thing to be mostly bad. It's another to hire Bear Bryant and Hal Mumme.

UK's Percentile Performance Since 1921 (according to S&P+ and Est. S&P+).
The dotted black line is the school's ten-year average.
For more on Est. S&P+, start here.

(Original helmet photo via

Actually, if Kentucky is notable for something, it's not Bryant and Mumme: it's the fact that, in the last 96 seasons, they've won either four, five or six games FIFTY TIMES. They've been rarely great and, really, rarely terrible. They've just been consistently not-very-good. That is an accomplishment in and of itself.

Best 10-Year Span

1947-56. A huge portion of those mediocre seasons took place early in the last century. Kentucky won between three and six games 23 times in 25 seasons between 1919-44. In seven seasons (1927-33), Harry Garnage went 32-25-5. In four seasons (1934-37), C.A. Wynne went 20-19. In six seasons (1938-44), A.D. Kirwan went 24-28-4. It was a truly startling level of consistency. But then Kentucky hired Bear Bryant. Your fortunes tend to change when you do that.

A second-team All-SEC end at Alabama in the mid-1930s, Bryant had begun his coaching career as an assistant under his former coach, Frank Thomas, in Tuscaloosa. He was an assistant for one year at Vanderbilt and was offered the Arkansas head coaching job late in 1941 but decided to enlist in the Navy after Pearl Harbor*, ending up a Lieutenant Commander and head coach of the North Carolina Navy Pre-Flight team. After his time in the military ended, Bryant was intent on becoming a head coach and ended up at Maryland for the 1945 season. He took a team that had gone 1-7-1 in 1944 and won six games. He quickly left, however, and ended up at Kentucky in 1946. It didn't take him long to turn perpetual mediocrity into true quality.

We've talked a lot in the past about how World War II so heavily impacted both college football's history and Missouri's -- without WWII, Don Faurot's Split-T remains a Missouri-specific novelty for a few more years, and coaches like Oklahoma's Bud Wilkinson perhaps don't figure it out as fast (Wilkinson was an assistant under Faurot for the Iowa Pre-Flight team during the war). Well ... that's all well and good, but ... how much of college football's history changes if Bear Bryant becomes Arkansas' head coach in 1942?

Actually, "perpetual mediocrity" isn't quite right. During the war, Kentucky was downright bad. In the 1942, 1944 and 1945 seasons (they did not play football in 1943), the Wildcats went just 8-20-1. No worries; in their first year under Bryant, they went 7-3, losing only to ranked Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee teams and winning their seven other games by a 213-34 margin. In 1947, Kentucky whipped No. 9 Georgia and No. 10 Vanderbilt by a combined 40-0 margin and advanced as high as 13th in the AP Poll before once again dropping games to Alabama and Tennessee and finishing 7-3. They did, however, earn a berth in their first ever bowl game; they beat Villanova, 24-14, in the Great Lakes Bowl in Cleveland. After a bit of a glitch in 1948 (UK lost three straight in October and finished 5-3-2), the real success began.

In 1949, Kentucky whipped LSU, Ole Miss, Georgia, and Florida by a combined 126-0 margin, allowed seven points or fewer in 10 of 12 games, finished 20th in the AP poll and lost in the Orange Bowl to Santa Clara.

In 1950, UK started 10-0, reached No. 3 in the polls, and, after a loss at No. 9 Tennessee, knocked off No. 1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. They finished No. 3 in the AP, claimed their first of just two SEC titles, and are one of four teams that claim a share of the 1950 national title (they were No. 1 according to Sagarin).

(Seriously, Mizzou should really be "claiming" the 1960 and 2007 national titles. Anybody can do it.)

In 1951, another three-game losing streak (at No. 11 Texas, at Ole Miss, No. 11 Georgia Tech) marred the early part of the season, but a late six-game win streak earned the Wildcats a Cotton Bowl berth, and they whipped No. 11 TCU, 20-7, to finish 8-4 and No. 15 in the country.

After a 5-4-2 glitch in 1952 and an 0-2 start to 1953, Kentucky caught fire once again. The Wildcats tied No. 14 LSU, whipped No. 20 Mississippi State, held off No. 12 Rice in Houston, mauled Vandy and Memphis, and actually beat Tennessee, 27-21, to finish 7-2-1 and 16th in AP poll.

Five straight Top 20 finishes were as rare for Kentucky then as it would be now. But Bryant missed an opportunity for true greatness when he failed to put up too much of a fight when the university rebuffed his efforts for integration.

Bryant fought his way out of poverty and developed a lifelong admiration for boys who also had to fight to earn a place in the world. As head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats from 1946 to 1953, he was a friend of the former commissioner of baseball and future governor of Kentucky, Albert Benjamin "Happy" Chandler, who had supported Branch Rickey in bringing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Bryant made overtures to the University of Kentucky administration about integrating its football team. He was rebuffed and did not press the issue, a fact Bryant would come to regret years later. Three years before his death in 1983, he told a reporter, "I wanted to be the Branch Rickey of college football."

Beyond that, though, through Bryant's eight seasons in Lexington, he became more and more jaded about UK's preference for basketball.

When I try to put my finger on it I can't say exactly why I left Kentucky, but one thing I want to make clear. I never tried to get Bernie Shively's job as athletic director, and the athletic directorship had nothing to do with what you could call a clash of objectives between me and Adolph Rupp. I guess, to be perfectly honest about it, that was the crux of the matter, me and Coach Rupp. If Rupp had retired as basketball coach when they said he was going to I'd probably still be at Kentucky. The trouble was we were too much alike, and he wanted basketball No. 1 and I wanted football No. 1. In an environment like that one or the other has to go.

I got this picture in my den of Bud Wilkinson laughing at a banquet over a story I told about that time we won the SEC championship at Kentucky, the only time a Kentucky football team ever has. Rupp had won it in basketball for the umpteenth time, and they gave him a great big blue Cadillac with whitewall tires, and I said at this banquet, "And here's what I got." And I held up this little old cigarette lighter. Well, when the thing came to a head I remembered that cigarette lighter, and I knew I was too far behind to ever catch up. […]

Well, I tried to resign in '52, after Kentucky had that basketball scandal, and go to Arkansas, but they flat out wouldn't release me. I was afraid the scandal would hurt our football program. Some people in Arkansas thought I was just using them to get a better deal, but that's not true. A year later Bernie Shively and I were going down to the conference meeting at Birmingham, and when we changed planes in Louisville I picked up a paper, and there it was. Rupp was not retiring at all and Dr. Donovan was saying how pleased he was. That did it. I made up my mind to go. I'd been led to believe Adolph was going to retire, and I'm glad now he didn't, he's meant so much to basketball. Well, the only offer I had open then was from Texas A&M, and I took it.

I went off and left Kentucky with the second best squad I ever had. Blanton Collier came in there the next year and had a winner.

Sure enough, Collier, a native of Millersburg, Kentucky, and an assistant under Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns, took over and saw some early success. UK got whipped by two Top 10 teams (Maryland and Ole Miss) in 1954 but rebounded to win seven of eight. They beat No. 8 Ole Miss and No. 17 Tennessee and finished 6-3-1 in 1955, then went 6-4 in 1956, but the returns were diminishing. Kentucky was ranked 20th in the 1957 preseason AP poll but finished 3-7 after getting shut out by four ranked teams. And from there, it was basically back to business as usual. Collier went 19-19-2 in his final four seasons (1958-61), and the university replaced him with a former Bryant assistant, Charley Bradshaw. There's more about him below (in the All-Time Series section), but the gist is a) he was as ruthless in his conditioning as Bryant was, and b) he wasn't nearly as successful. Kentucky went 11-9 in 1964-65, but in his other five seasons (1962-63, 1966-68) never won more than three games. Then John Ray won 10 games in four years.

Through what we will call creative recruiting techniques, Fran Curci engineered a brief, out-of-nowhere turnaround for the Kentucky program. After going just 13-19-1 in his first three seasons, Curci and his Wildcats won the SEC in 1976, beating No. 20 Penn State, No. 16 LSU, No. 15 Florida and, in the Peach Bowl (their first bowl post-Bryant), No. 19 North Carolina. Then, in 1977, while serving a postseason ban as part of NCAA sanctions for said recruiting techniques, Kentucky had its most successful non-Bryant season ever. After a surprising loss at Baylor, the Wildcats proceeded to beat No. 17 West Virginia by 15, win at No. 4 Penn State, and win at No. 16 LSU by 20. They outscored Georgia, Virginia Tech and Vanderbilt down the stretch by a combined 93-6 margin, then took out Tennessee at home to finish off a 10-1 season. Their final AP ranking: sixth.

As always, however, Kentucky reverted to previous form. Evidently the sanctions took hold, and after winning 10 games in 1977, Curci would win just 15 in the next four seasons. He was ousted in favor of highly successful Maryland coach Jerry Claiborne, a former Kentucky halfback under Bryant. Claiborne came home to Lexington ... and went 41-46-3 over eight years. Kentucky did go to two Hall Of Fame Bowls and finished 19th in 1984, but his final five years were the wrong kind of consistent: 5-6, 5-5-1, 5-6, 5-6 and 6-5.

In a strange move, Kentucky then actually hired away Alabama's coach. Bill Curry had won an SEC title for Alabama in 1989 but was offered a contract extension he found offensive and took the first offer he got. But he led Kentucky to just one bowl in seven seasons, went 9-24 from 1994-96, and was ousted in favor of the head coach of Valdosta State.

It is a broad, incorrect assumption that the spread offense won't work in the SEC. Not only has it worked many times (hello, 2010 Auburn), but it got its true start in the SEC when Kentucky handed the reins of its program to Hal Mumme and his offensive coordinator, Mike Leach.

Arguably the biggest innovation Mumme and his staff brought to the SEC was the introduction of the receiver "tunnel screen," a predecessor to the wide variety of receiver screens you see today, from jailbreaks to "now" screens or "rocket" screens and many others. At the same time Purdue was making widespread use of the "bubble screen" as an at-the-line check in the Big Ten to hurt stodgy 4-3 teams that didn’t deign to walk their linebackers out to Purdue’s slot receivers, but Mumme’s use of the tunnel screen was audacious: Any down, any distance, against any defense, he was going to throw a none-yard pass to a receiver and let him try to make a play. Whether or not you think this innovation was ingenious or nefarious likely depends on your view of the many such receiver screens ever-present throughout every level of football today. But in 1997 teams were really not prepared for it, and the bottom line was that Kentucky could not throw the ball fifty times a game like they wanted to entirely by dropping back and pass protecting. Instead they needed to get the ball to the perimeter, fast, and wear out the great defensive lines they faced. The tunnel screens gave them a way to do it.

At that time Chris Hatcher, the former Mumme quarterback who had then become a Mumme assistant, liked to say that Kentucky thought of themselves as a well-coached backyard team. This insight — at a place like Kentucky, at least — was ingenious, because almost all of Kentucky’s post-Bear Bryant history had shown that it could not compete playing the same brand of football as everyone else in the SEC. Instead they needed to change the game into something different, something, well, weird. Mumme and his staff knew they couldn’t beat the big SEC powers — or just about anyone in the SEC at all — playing normal, regular football. They could only beat them playing something more like back yard football, and the tunnel screen was the chief symbol.

Hal Mumme really didn't actually win big at Kentucky -- his Wildcats beat Alabama for the first time in 75 years in 1997 and reached bowls in 1998-99 but crumbled to 2-9 in 2000 as the NCAA moved in and prepared to smack the program down for, once again, creative recruiting techniques -- but Kentucky's hire of Mumme was both creative and incredibly influential.

Worst 10-Year Span

2002-11. Mumme resigned, and Guy Morriss was named interim coach for a miserable 2-9 season in 2001. Led by Hefty Lefty Jared Lorenzen, Kentucky bounced back to 7-5 in 2002, but Mumme left for the Baylor job, and Kentucky made what seemed like the ultimate retread hire, reaching for former Oregon and St. Louis Rams coach Rich Brooks, who had been out of the game for two years.

At the very least, Brooks reestablished Kentucky's program as a home for potentially decent football. They went just 9-25 in his first three years, but they broke through with eight wins and a Music City Bowl berth in 2006, then made bowls (usually Music City) for each of his final three seasons. Kentucky briefly reached the Top 10 in 2007 after beating No. 1 LSU in overtime, but they lost four of their final six games and finished 8-5. Brooks retired after two straight 7-6 seasons, and his hand-picked replacement, Joker Phillips ... has yet to meet that standard. Kentucky went 6-7 in 2010, losing in the BBVA Compass Bowl, then served as the worst 5-7 team in the country last year, beating five bad teams, losing the rest by a lot, and fielding one of the worst BCS conferences offenses in the country.

That Kentucky has experienced four winning seasons in this "worst 10-year span" tells you two things: 1) Those 2003-05 and 2011 teams were really bad, and 2) Kentucky has never been truly awful for a sustained amount of time. They just haven't typically been consistently good either.

Retired Numbers

21. Calvin Bird.

Calvin Bird was one of the most versatile players in wildcats history ... Playing from 1958 to 1960 for coach Blanton Collier, bird excelled as a running back, pass receiver, defensive back, kickoff returner, and punt returner ... He continues to hold five school records in the categories of kickoff returns, all-purpose yardage, and scoring ... He was chosen as the sec "sophomore of the year" in 1958 when he led the league in pass receiving ... He was named to the all-sec teams as a junior and senior ... He led the team in receiving and all-purpose yardage for three consecutive seasons ... He played in three all-star games following his senior year and was the most valuable back in the all-american bowl ... Calvin is one of four brothers who played sports at uk ... His older brother, Jerry, is a retired jersey honoree in basketball and a younger brother, Rodger, has a retired jersey in football ... Having already taken early retirement in one career, Calvin moved back to lexington four years ago and has begun another career as a representative of Six Manufacturers of telecommunications products.

22. Mark Higgs.

Playing from 1984 to 1987 for coach jerry claiborne, Mark Higgs is one of the greatest running backs ever to wear the blue and white ... He ranks third in school history with 2,892 rushing yards ... He holds school records for highest rushing average in a season and highest rushing average in a career ... His senior season in 1987 is one of the most outstanding campaigns in UK history ... He rushed for what was then a school record of 1,278 yards ... He had six 100-yard games ... He was selected as the sec offensive player of the week when he rushed for 192 yards in a victory over Mississippi ... He was named All-SEC and the team's most valuable senior ... Mark earned a place on the SEC academic honor roll ... He was a letterman on the 1984 Wildcats squad that won the Hall of Fame Bowl ... He played in the Hula Bowl and Blue-Gray game following his senior year ... He was drafted by the Dallas cowboys and enjoyed an eight-year career in the National Football League with Dallas, Philadelphia, Miami, and Arizona ... Now lives in Davie, Florida, where he is co-owner of a transportation company.


Yes, Kentucky prefers basketball to everything else. But UK fans still more than support football. Commonwealth Stadium opened in1973 and holds 67,942 people. Attendance has commonly broken 70,000 in recent years, however; 70,902 were in attendance for Kentucky's upset of LSU in 2007, and 71,024 were in attendance a week later when Kentucky fell to Florida.

Commonwealth Stadium replaced McLean Stadium, which held just 37,000 people and was incapable of expansion because of its tight placement on campus. Kentucky and Alabama didn't play for 25 years, supposedly because Bear Bryant refused to visit Lexington again until a new stadium was built. And, of course, what Bear Bryant wanted, Bear Bryant got.

Kentucky On YouTube

Ten semi-random highlights via the YouTubes:

From The Bear Bryant Story
Kentucky whips North Carolina in 1976 Peach Bowl
Kentucky whips Tennessee to complete a 10-1 campaign in 1977.
Kentucky beats Alabama for the first time in 75 years, thanks mostly to Tim Couch's arm.
4-Verticals, one of the spread's signature plays, was perfected, in part, by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach at Kentucky.
The Bluegrass Miracle.
Kentucky takes out Clemson in the 2006 Music City Bowl.
Kentucky beats No. 9 Louisville with a shocking, late touchdown in 2007.
Kentucky 43, No. 1 LSU 37 in 2007
Kentucky fans celebrate UK's first win over Tennessee in 26 years in 2011. (Warning: vertigo.)


View their statistical profile here.

Five Interesting Returnees On Offense
RG Larry Warford (6'3, 343, Sr.) (25 career starts, 2011 2nd-team All-SEC)
WR La'Rod King (6'4, 222, Sr.) (598 receiving yards, 7.6 per target, 51% catch rate)
RB CoShik Williams (5'9, 178, Sr.) (486 rushing yards, 4.1 per carry, 3 TD, -7.5 Adj. POE)
LT John Gruenschlaeger (6'11, 339, RSFr.) (never played and won't start, but HUGE)
And that's about it.

Five Interesting Returnees On Defense
S Martavius Neloms (6'1, 186, Sr.) (50.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT, 5 PBU)
S Mikie Benton (5'11, 195, Sr.) (23.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 7 PBU)
DE Collins Ukwu (6'5, 258, Sr.) (20.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 3 FR in 9 games)
MLB Avery Williamson (6'1, 243, Jr.) (37.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 INT)
SLB Alvin Dupree (6'4, 249, So.) (16.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 PBU)


Missouri's All-Time Series Versus Kentucky

If Mizzou doesn't fire Dan Devine soon, I will organize protests. This year, in fact, the margin has gotten worse -- Kentucky's all-time record versus Mizzou has gone from 2-1 to 2-0.

  • September 18, 1965 (in Columbia): Kentucky 7, Mizzou 0

    When I'm reading about seasons past, I like to view them like they were happening today. It's hard reading articles or books written at the time--even great writing like Bob Broeg's Ol' Mizzou: A Story of Missouri Football--because the terms have changed. Thinking of things in today's parlance, and imagining if the given storylines had happened in this past football season, makes things a little more vivid and realistic.

    When it comes to Charley Bradshaw's mid-'60s Kentucky teams, however, putting them in today's terms is rather hard to do. Thanks to Keith Jackson and those Gatorade commercials, we know that University of Florida scientists are credited for the creation of the sports drink to replenish fluids and electrolytes for Florida players losing it in the Florida swamplands. However, there's a good case to be made that those UF scientists created the drink as a sign of mercy for Kentucky players going through Bradshaw's insane conditioning practices.

    How hard were Bradshaw's practices? A book called The Thin Thirty describes how his first UK team started with 88 players and ended with just 30--that many people quit or were weeded out. Imagine if that happened today? Bradshaw would have been either fired, sued, or both before the first game! Outside the Lines would have had a four-part "Have workouts gone too far?" expose. In the 1960s, however, his job was safe, likely under the "He's making men out of these boys" guise.

    Whether anybody should be pushed as hard as Kentucky's players were pushed in the 1960s is up for debate, but what was not debatable was that you really did not want to play Kentucky at the beginning of the season. Not only were Bradshaw's teams forced to be in tip-top shape, but they also got more practices in because they started school earlier than most at the time (clearly, rules were different then). Almost every year, they eventually (and justifably) wore out--in Bradshaw's seven years in Lexington, UK went 7-6-1 in September and 18-35-3 thereafter--but an intensely hot Saturday in mid-September (we all know how hot season openers at Faurot can be) was precisely the wrong time to be playing the Wildcats.

    On top of all this, the 1965 squad was Bradshaw's best at Kentucky. Future Miami Dolphin Rick Norton was behind center for the Wildcats, and he came through with a timely, clutch play late in a scoreless first half, throwing a touchdown pass on 4th-and-6 from the Mizzou 36. Sadly, that was all the scoring the Wildcats would need. Mizzou committed seven turnovers; Gary Lane started his senior season with three interceptions, and Mizzou lost four fumbles to boot. UK's defense and conditioning made the difference in the heat, and just like that Mizzou was off to a disappointing 0-1 start.

  • September 21, 1968 (at Lexington): Kentucky 12, Mizzou 6

    Missouri had come within a single touchdown of allowing the nation's fewest points in 1967, but in a conference becoming known for its flamboyant offenses, the Tigers looked as if they might get left behind. They were picked fourth in the conference in the preseason media polls, and it was easy to see why. Kansas returned Bobby Douglass, possibly their best quarterback of all-time. Nebraska had a great (and huge) passer in 6'7 Frank Patrick. Colorado's Bob Anderson and Oklahoma's Bob Warmack were both solid run-pass threats. Meanwhile, Mizzou would be starting a newbie. The race came down to Garnett Phelps (younger brother of former Mizzou halfback Monroe Phelps) and incoming junior college transfer Terry McMillan, and early in the season, neither really did a lot to instill confidence.

    McMillan started out on fire in Mizzou's opener at Kentucky, but the flame quickly fizzled. He caught another JUCO transfer, Mel Gray (maybe you've heard of him?), for a 79-yard bomb and uncorked a gorgeous 51-yard option touchdown that was called back via penalty, but the Tigers couldn't stop fumbling the ball away. Turnovers and a couple of bungled field goal attempts led to a disappointing 12-6 loss to an iffy Kentucky squad.