What an unbelievable year 1976 was for Kentucky football. 40 years ago. It had been 24 years since the Wildcats had participated in a post-season bowl, the 1953 Cotton Bowl, which was the final bowl enjoyed by Paul “Bear” Bryant before leaving for Texas A&M.
So you can forgive the Wildcat Faithful for being a bit giddy heading to Atlanta for a game UK fans had been craving for the previous two decades. I’ll take you down that memory lane in a few minutes. But first, the Bear Bryant effect.
After Bryant left following the 1953 season, successors like Blanton Collier, Charlie Bradshaw and John Ray failed to show the magic touch Bryant had brought to the program in the 1940s. Ray, however, can be credited for planting the seeds leading to back-to-back 1976-1977 seasons.
Ray came to UK from the University of Notre Dame, where he was considered the premier defensive coordinator in the country under the legendary Ara Parseghian. In the process, the UK adminstration promised it would build a brand spanking new Commonwealth Stadium to replace the dilapidated Stoll Field.
By the time UK was ready to move into CWS in 1973, Ray was down to the final year of his 5-year contract. He asked the UK Board of Trustees to give him an extra 6th year (’73 & ’74) to show that his program was on its way to success. His first 4 years were sprinkled with dashes of hope & periods of despair. In his second game in 1969, UK shocked Archie Manning & No. 8 Ole Miss, 10-9. His 4 seasons, though, went 2-8, 2-9, 3-8 and 3-8. Ray was denied a 6th year, thus he told UK he was not going to coach just one year in new CWS. So he left.
Needless to say, UK officials felt pressure to bring a fresh and exciting coach on board.
UK President at the time, Dr. Otis Singletary, found the new blood in south Florida where he hired one of the nation’s youngest head coaches, 35-year-old Fran Curci from University of Miami [Fla], thanks to the help of Kentucky Fried Chicken guru John Y. Brown, Jr.
Greeted with a new stadium and an upgrade in talent recruited by Ray, Kentucky immediately compiled 5-6 and 6-5 seasons under Curci. In fact, UK led powerful Bear Bryant and Alabama 14-0 at the half of the second game played in CWS in 1973 before losing 28-14. Willie Shelby returned the opening K-O of the second half to launch the comeback for Bama.
By spring of 1975, enthusiasm was high. Popular and colorful All-American Sonny Collins was back for his senior season and many expected the bowl drought to end. Instead, everything fell apart with the offense, only twice generating more than two touchdowns in a game during the entire season. Unfounded rumors of point-shaving and an unrelated murder cast a pall over the entire year. An ongoing NCAA investigation later resulted in a bowl ban for the 1977 season.
Nevertheless, the UK program weathered the storm.
1976 would be the year. After all, 1976 was the 200th birthday of our country.
Memory is good of 1976. That’s when I founded The Cats’ Pause weekly magazine. First issue was published on opening day, Sept. 11, as UK took on Oregon State. UK had little trouble with the Beavers, winning 38-13.
A trip the next week to Lawrence, Kansas, brought the Cats back to earth, losing 37-16.
UK then put back-to-back wins over West Virginia (14-10) and Penn State (22-6). The upset victory over Joe Paterno and PSU immediately gave UK national recognition as UK eased out to a 3-1 start. The CWS crowd of 57,733 was the largest college football crowd in history of the state at that time. Kentucky football had finally arrived, many thought.
A trip to Jackson, MS left UK with a 14-7 loss that actually turned into a forfeit win 2 years later by NCAA. MSU had used an ineligible player in the game against UK.
Kentucky won four of its final six games, losing to only Georgia (31-7) and a Jerry Claiborne-coached Maryland team (24-14). During that stretch, UK defeated LSU (21-7), Vanderbilt (14-0), Florida (28-9), and Tennessee (7-0).
The Tennessee game was for all the marbles. Both clubs rolled on the field at Neyland Stadium with identical 6-4 records. Peach Bowl officials announced earlier in the week that to the victors would go the SEC bowl bid. Unfortunately for embattled Coach Bill Battle, he would wind up with a personal note of his own from UT officials after the game. A very unpleasant note, I might add.
In perhaps the most defensived-minded college football game I’ve ever attended, punting was the name of the game throughtout. UK squeezed out the 7-0 win, thanks to a Derrick Ramsey to Greg Woods TD pass.
As the teams filed off the field, Peach Bowl officials happily met Curci & his players with UK’s first bowl invitation in a quarter-century. Outside the Tennessee locker room, UT officials were passing out a one sheet release announcing the firing of Bill Battle.
Throughout the month of December, UK fans of both football and basketball were on a unique high, winning big-time in the two major sports.
On the eve of New Year’s Eve, Kentucky was performing its annual dismantling of Notre Dame 102-78 at Louisville’s Freedom Hall, while in Atlanta, thousands of Big Blue fans cheered every basket while watching the game on TV from hotel lobbies.
By kick-off the following day, more than 37,000 UK fans braved bitter-cold Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium as freshman Rod Stewart put on quite a show, scoring 3 touchdowns as the Kentucky defense shut out North Carolina, 21-0.
What transpired the following season would be one of the ages. We’ll talk about 1977 later.
Member of Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. Former co-host of UK Radio Network's pregame football & basketball shows. Founder & former publisher of The Cats' Pause. Former publisher of East Kentucky Voice. Former editor of The Hazard Herald. Winner of 41 awards from Kentucky Press Association & Kentucky Weekly Press Association. Winner of 1977 U. S. Basketball Writers Association sports feature of year. Native of Hazard, Ky.