Tim Couch Flashback: “Dangerous As A Broken Fruit Jar”

Tim Couch Kentucky Wildcats Quarterback Hal Mumme

JULY 1998 – On a bright spring morning when many of his University of Kentucky teammates are playing golf or lounging around a pool, Tim Couch sits inside a darkened film room searching for chinks in his armor. Interceptions. Poor reads. Sacks. Forced passes. Amid the flickering light of a video projector, the record-setting quarterback uses his free time to look for flaws in his own performance.

Several months before he will face another blitz, Couch holds a remote control in his hand and fast-forwards past dozens of perfectly executed reads and throws worthy of a college football highlight film. He even zooms past the touchdown that beat Alabama and cemented his status as a Kentucky sports icon.

“I don’t spend much time looking at the plays that worked,” explains the 6-foot-5, 223-pound junior. “You can learn so much more by looking back at what you did wrong and figuring out what you should have done in that situation. The idea is to learn from your mistakes so you won’t make them again.”

After critiquing several failed plays, Couch lingers on an interception he threw against Georgia last season. He watches it over and over again, breaking it down frame-by-frame. The miscue still bothers him because a victory over the Bulldogs could have given the Wildcats a winning season and a bowl bid, and the competitive young man is determined to learn something from the experience to make himself a better quarterback.

“Got too cocky,” he says. “We’re not supposed to throw over a defensive end but I got away with it several times last year, so I got to thinking I could do that all the time. Then that guy taught me a lesson.”

Two years ago, Couch arrived in Lexington as the most celebrated recruit in Kentucky football history. After becoming the national prep Player of the Year out of tiny Hyden, Ky., the big, strong-armed kid was widely hailed as the quarterback who would lead the long-suffering Kentucky program to the promised land. But Bill Curry wasted his talents and after his freshman year, Couch was so distraught, he considered transferring to another school. Then Hal Mumme replaced the fired Curry, tossed Couch the keys to an explosive passing offense, and watched the sophomore become one of the top college quarterbacks in America.

“You can talk about all his tools but Tim’s number one asset is his passion for the game,” Mumme says. “He loves to study his opponents, loves to analyze himself. He wants to win so bad.”

But can Couch rescue the program all by himself?

The roots of Couch’s intense competitiveness can be traced to his own backyard. When he was a young boy, Tim and his brother Greg, four years older, battled vigorously in games of one-on-one behind their house. Even though Tim was among the biggest kids in his class, Greg always held a slight size advantage in those days, which forced Tim to work hard to contend with his older brother. Determined to be the best, Tim used to shoot baskets for hour upon hour after supper, risking frostbite in the frigid Kentucky winters. Sometimes it was so cold his fingers started bleeding.

“They really fought like crazy on that basketball court,” recalls their father, Elbert Couch, an administrator with the Leslie County school system. “Even then, Tim couldn’t stand to get beat. It would just eat him up to lose.”

Buried deep in the hills of eastern Kentucky’s coal-mining country, Hyden (population 375) is a largely impoverished community isolated from the prosperity of urban areas. According to the 1990 census, 35 percent of the people in Leslie County live below the poverty line and only 40 percent of the adult population have a high school diploma. But Couch has given the little town an identity. For years now, ever since he started setting records as a high school quarterback, drawing fans and recruiters from far and wide, the road into town has been decorated with a large wooden sign celebrating the accomplishments of Elbert and Janice’s second-born. The town sends a busload of fans to every Kentucky home game.

Couch starred in both football and basketball at Leslie County High School—he averaged a state-best 36 points per game on the hardwood as a senior—but football was always his first love. After leading Leslie County to the state semi-finals his senior year, Couch finished with national high school records for career passing yards (12,901) and touchdowns (133) and was named the Gatorade Player of the Year. Recruiters marveled at his level of offensive sophistication, often comparing him to John Elway. “Dangerous as a broken fruit jar,” exclaimed Leslie County principal Omus Shepherd.

When Curry, hanging onto his job by a thread, started recruiting Couch, he faced extremely long odds. His program was drowning in a sea of losses and every major football power in the country wanted Couch. But about 2 o’clock one morning in the middle of December 1995, Tim burst into his parents’ bedroom, woke them from a sound sleep and broke the news: He was going to Kentucky to help start a new winning tradition.

By the middle of his freshman season, however, Couch was frustrated and regretting his decision. He started only two games and threw only 84 passes, most in mop-up duty, even though most people close to the program could see he was a far superior talent to senior Billy Jack Haskins. The option offense was ill-suited to his talents, and even before Curry (26-52 in seven years) was fired, Couch contemplated transferring to Tennessee or another school with a big-time passing offense.

“Honestly, I was real close to leaving,” Couch says. “I just felt like I wasn’t in the right place.”

But Mumme, who brought a spread-the-field passing scheme and an aggressive philosophy from Division 1-AA Valdosta State, convinced the quarterback to stay by putting the offense in his hands. “Won me over in about 15 seconds,” Couch says.

Although the Wildcats struggled to a 5-6 finish—only one victory better than Curry’s final team—Mumme and Couch were instant hits with Kentucky fans starved for excitement. As the trigger man of the country’s six-ranked offense, he led the nation in passing yards (3,884), attempts (547), completions (363) and completion percentage (66.4). He finished second in the nation in touchdowns (37) and second in total offense (341.7 yards per game) as Kentucky fans flocked to Commonwealth Stadium in record numbers. Among the 10 Southeastern Conference records he shattered or tied, he attempted a record 66 passes against LSU—nearly as many as in the entire 1996 season.

“When Coach Mumme came in, he made football fun again for Tim,” says Elbert Couch.

Although the much-maligned Kentucky offensive line played way over its head last season, Couch was battered at times but displayed a remarkable durability. In the 63-28 loss to LSU, he was roughed up near the end and Mumme tried to take him out. “But he wanted to finish the game,” Mumme recalls. “He wanted to go down with the ship. To me, that’s the mark of a courageous player.”

But even as he emerged as the rarest of beings in the commonwealth—a football hero—Couch was disappointed by his inability to translate all that offense into a winning season. The SEC’s worst defense was like a lead weight dangling from Couch’s neck. His Wildcats averaged 31.6 points per game and still it wasn’t enough to offset the weakness of the defense. “You put that many points on the board and you expect to win,” he says.

Typically, Mumme scripts the first 10-15 offensive plays of each game to test the defense. Then Couch is free to improvise.

Although Mumme sends in a play every down, it carries the weight of a “suggestion” because the coach places tremendous confidence in the quarterback’s ability to read the defense and attack its weaknesses.

“Tim loves to play games with the defense,” Mumme says. “He’s such a great student of the game, he probably knows their tendencies better than they do. And he loves to do certain things to make the defense react one way and then do something else that they aren’t going to expect.”

Back in the film room, Couch watches himself handle a third-and-eight situation against South Carolina. In this play, the receiver at the bottom of the screen is running a post, the receiver at the top is running a curl, and the tight end and slot are dragging across the middle. Under ordinary circumstances, Couch wants to allow the receiver running the post to complete his route and hit him 12-15 yards downfield.

“First thing I look for when we get to the ball is whether the linebackers are going to blitz,” Couch says. “If they don’t blitz, I’ll probably hit him way up field. If the linebacker’s coming, then I’ve got to get rid of it real quick, which means I’ve got to hit him on the run or go to one of the other receivers.”

As soon as the ball is snapped, Couch realizes the linebacker is out of position, which leaves Anthony White, one of his fastest receivers, in the open field in single coverage. Bingo! Instead of waiting for the other receivers to come open, he dumps if off short to White, who races for a 12-yard gain and a first down. Most rookie quarterbacks would never make that read so fast.

“Tim has this incredible determination to make something happen,” says receiver Craig Yeast. “You can feel that determination in the huddle.”

Couch is the first to admit that the process of picking a defense part is a collaborative effort between himself, his receivers and the coaches. In the Alabama game last year, Yeast kept begging him to throw the curl. He was wide open all night long on that route. So in overtime, with the game riding in the balance, Couch hit Yeast on the curl and he ran 26 yards for the game-winning touchdown. It was Kentucky’s first victory over Crimson Tide in 75 years and in the eyes of the Wildcat fans who mounted the goalposts, it might as well have been a victory for the national championship.

Although the Mumme system emphasizes mostly short passes thrown underneath the coverage, the coach plans to expand Couch’s repertoire this season by adding more downfield throws to spread the defense even more. He also believes Couch can do a better job executing his play-action passes and display more patience at critical junctures.

“Tim’s worst tendency is probably trying to rush through the rhythm of the play sometimes,” Mumme says. “Sometimes he wants to force a throw. But that’s just immaturity. He’ll get better with experience.”

With the defense likely to struggle against this season, Couch will be forced to carry a disproportionate share of the load. While he is careful not to criticize his teammates, he concedes a level of frustration, which demonstrates a universal lesson about the game. He can spend the entire off-season watching film; he can lift weights three hours a day; he can learn the tendencies of every one of his opponents by heart. But football is a team game and he cannot do it all by himself.

“He’s going to spill his guts out there for this team,” says halfback Anthony White. “He’s going to give it everything he has. But he can’t play defense.”

Originally published in Dunnavant’s Paydirt Illustrated, July 1998.

Copyright 1998 Keith Dunnavant

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This article is part of a 10-week series from the archives of best-selling sports author Keith Dunnavant, who started covering the SEC as a teenager and has been writing about the game’s major players and coaches for more than 30 years. You may be familiar with Dunnavant’s Bear Bryant biography Coach or The Missing Ring, his book about the undefeated, untied, uncrowned 1966 Crimson Tide. His fifth book, America’s Quarterback: Bart Starr and the Rise of the National Football League, will be published Sept. 13.

Dunnavant, who was the national college football writer for Frank Deford’s revolutionary sports newspaper The National and the founder of the magazine Dunnavant’s Paydirt Illustrated, now edits College Football Replay and Crimson Replay. Check out these great sites for more award-winning articles, video and audio on national college football history and Alabama football history, respectively.