Kentucky football lost a giant in John Schlarman
How can you deal with loss?
So much of this wonderful and sometimes heartbreaking game of football answers that question. And many times, the answer is to bounce back, to surge onward, to not let the temporary setback dominate the story. If the tailback is dropped for a loss, he hops up, runs back to the huddle and waits for the next carry. If the lineman misses a block, plant the linebacker on the ground on the next play. If you lose a rivalry game, pull an upset the next week.
Sometimes, loss is bigger than that, and the answers are less clear.
For Kentucky football, this is one of those times.
Thursday morning, Kentucky offensive line coach John Schlarman was overtaken by fatal stage 4 cholangiocarcinoma, a rare form of cancer that Schlarman battled ceaselessly over the last 2 years. It is a loss that borders on the incalculable.
Years before he coached the offensive lines that paved the way for the best rushing attacks in the SEC, Schlarman played at Kentucky. From 1994-97, he started 40 games in Lexington as an undersized guard, measuring 6-2, 267 pounds. Schlarman was consistently outsized and frequently matched up against players with more physical talent. On the strength of boundless grit, determination and work ethic, he became an All-SEC lineman, despite undergoing a laundry list of medical procedures just to make it to the field. As a junior, he tore his ACL in April, and 4 months after surgery, was back on the field in Week 2 of the season.
Schlarman moved into coaching immediately after college. He was a graduate assistant at Kentucky from 2000-2002. After coaching high school teams for a few years, he coached the offensive line at Troy from 2007-2012. He joined Mark Stoops in his initial staff at Kentucky in 2013, of which Vince Marrow is now the lone remaining staff member.
In his time at Kentucky, Schlarman became a key component of the offensive staff. Kentucky has rushed for 4.1 yards per carry or better in each of Schlarman’s seasons on staff. His offensive line paved the way for 4 consecutive seasons of 1,000-yard rushers. Kentucky had never had 2 such seasons in a row before. Kentucky had never led the SEC in rushing before Schlarman. In 2019, they did. They stand 3rd in 2020 heading into this weekend.
But all of those things are facts. They will not convey the magnitude of Schlarman’s impact or the loss of his passing. For those, you have to dig deeper.
Maybe ask Bunchy Stallings, who can tell the story of how Schlarman walked a mile in a snowstorm and slept in the gym to recruit him away from Mississippi State. Stallings, like Schlarman, wasn’t a very highly regarded recruit. Under Schlarman’s tutelage, he also became an All-SEC player.
Ask Drake Jackson or Landon Young, two big-time in-state recruits who chose to stay home at Kentucky instead of play for NFL factories elsewhere in the southeast. Jackson wore Schlarman’s No. 65 last week against Georgia. Both are effusive in their praise of their coach.
Or ask anybody in the locker room after the last game when Schlarman could coach from the sideline — Oct. 17 in Knoxville. Schlarman’s career as a player had ended with a loss to Tennessee when a Kentucky win could have earned the program a bowl bid. As a coach, he’d been to Knoxville 5 times, without a victory.
When Kentucky held a 17-7 halftime lead, Schlarman’s offensive line was given the job of taking the game home. Touchdown, field goal, touchdown. 36 years of Kentucky losing in Knoxville was over. Where did the team find the conviction to end that streak?
Maybe from the red-faced guy who sometimes had to sit during practice, but who was there anyway. The guy whose feet would break out in painful blisters, who would vomit on the sidelines, and who would continue to coach. The guy who spent the last 2 years of his life completing a fight that the doctors told him he could not win. But who not only continued that fight as long and as well as he could, but who insisted on using the ebbing days and weeks of his life to teach his players everything he could. Maybe the guy they gave the game ball to.
Unlike that losing streak in Knoxville, some losses are never overcome.
The loss of John Schlarman is one of those.