For Kentucky football, the ghosts of 1977 linger
Pick a team. Any team. Even a football team from a basketball school.
Pick Duke, for instance. The Blue Devils just won their fifth NCAA basketball title. They can hoop. The football program? In 2008, Duke lawyers successfully argued — in a Kentucky court, no less (more on why that matters in a minute) — that the football program was, in essence, the worst in America.
So Duke is not a magic name in football, yet even Duke has posted several winning conference records since 1977.
Try Indiana. Like Duke, Indiana is a basketball school that dabbles in football. The Hoosiers also have won five NCAA basketball titles. In the past 20 seasons, their football team has endured 12 dreary years with one or no victories.
A football juggernaut it is not, yet even Indiana has posted several winning conference records since 1977.
Kansas? North Carolina? UCLA? All three have won multiple NCAA basketball titles, and all three football programs have posted multiple winning records in their conference since 1977.
What makes 1977 so special? Why circle that year? That’s the last year Kentucky’s football program posted a winning record in the SEC. Since then, every other Power 5 conference football team has posted at least one winning record in its league.
Even the basketball schools. Even Duke. Even Indiana.
Breaking that streak is one reason the Wildcats’ closing stretch, which begins Saturday at Mississippi State, looms larger this season than most others.
Heartbreak in 1993
Kentucky football wasn’t always what it has become. Bear Bryant coached there, after all, posting a winning record in each of his eight seasons and leading the Wildcats to an 11-win season and Sugar Bowl victory in 1950. Bryant left in 1953 with a program-record 60 wins, and everything changed.
Just 18 winning seasons post-Bryant provides the irrefutable evidence.
Most of Kentucky’s recent teams haven’t been terribly close to .500 in the SEC, but a few chased the ghosts of 1977 before their hopes vanished.
The night of Sept. 11, 1993, was particularly vexing.
No. 7-ranked Florida, with Steve Spurrier calling plays and freshman Danny Wuerffel executing them, opened the SEC season in Lexington. The Gators were young but building toward their first football championship three years later.
Kentucky was improving in Year 4 under Bill Curry.
Juna Leonoff’s 25-yard field goal gave the Wildcats a 20-17 lead late in the fourth quarter. The stadium rocked as the Wildcats kicked off, just 90 seconds from their first win over a top 10 team since upsetting No 4 Penn State in … 1977.
Wuerffel took over near midfield and steadily drove the Gators into Kentucky territory with a series of short passes. On first-and-10 from Kentucky’s 28, Florida called its final timeout with 17 seconds left. Spurrier barked instructions at Wuerffel, who disappeared into the huddle.
His first two passes were off target, and the clock trickled to 8 seconds.
Florida radio play-by-play man Mick Hubert described what happened next, as Wuerffel dropped back, pump faked to his right and spotted Chris Doering all alone in the end zone behind three Kentucky defenders.
“Doering’s got a touchdown!” Huber exclaimed. “Doering’s got a touchdown! Oh, my! Doering’s got a touchdown!”
The 1993 Wildcats finished 4-4. The final loss was a blowout against Tennessee, but the real sting came two weeks earlier against Vanderbilt. Kentucky entered that game 4-2 in the SEC. Vanderbilt led 10-7 when it sacked Kentucky for a safety.
Kentucky’s only chance was to recover an onside kick.
“They tried to trick them and pooch it over the hands’ team,” remembered longtime Kentucky writer and columnist John Clay. “It didn’t work. It didn’t trick them, and they ran out the game.”
By then, the Wildcats were immune to heartbreak.
Nightmare in Knoxville
The Tim Couch era in the late 1990s produced two wins over ranked SEC schools, another 4-4 conference finish and a bowl game, but fans had to wait until 2006 for the next realistic chance to end the streak.
The Wildcats were 4-3 in the SEC when they left for Knoxville to face No. 19 Tennessee in the regular-season finale. Kentucky led 12-10 going into the fourth quarter. The Volunteers then drove 80 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
This wasn’t the same old, same old Kentucky team, however.
Nobody knew that better than the Wildcats’ quarterback, Andre Woodson. The son of a military family, Woodson moved frequently before settling in Radcliff, Ky., about 100 miles southwest on the Bluegrass Parkway from Lexington.
Woodson was intimately familiar with Wildcats football. He knew the last time they won at Tennessee, the last time they had a winning record in the SEC.
“We talked about it,” Woodson said. “We were well aware of the time frame since we’d been to a bowl game or played well in the conference. We tried to reiterate that to all of the players, that it’s been a long time since Kentucky has done well, and we were trying to change the face of the program.”
Woodson was the SEC’s most dangerous quarterback that season. He led the league with 31 touchdown passes. One of his favorite targets was tight end Jacob Tamme, a Lexington native who went on to play in the NFL.
In other words, trailing 17-12 late in the fourth quarter, Kentucky still had a chance, maybe its best chance since 1977 to end the streak.
Woodson and Tamme went to work. They connected twice to pick up two first downs. Woodson found Tamme again for a 38-yard gain, pushing the ball inside Tennessee’s 20-yard line.
Four minutes remained, a lifetime of football.
A short completion and two runs gave Kentucky first-and-goal from Tennessee’s 6-yard line.
It’s painful, but Woodson remembers the next sequence all to well. He ran an option left and pitched to Rafael Little, who beat a Volunteers defender to the sideline and turned the corner.
“He was notorious for making people miss,” Woodson said. “When he caught the edge, I think all of us thought he was going to get in the end zone.”
Little dived for the pylon, but he had stepped out of bounds first.
Second down, ball at the 3. Woodson, lined up behind center, scanned the Vols defensive front and realized Kentucky didn’t have enough blockers to execute the play. As the play clock raced toward zero, Woodson tried to audible but ran out of time. A delay of game pushed the Wildcats back five yards. A short run set up third-and-goal from the Tennessee’s 6-yard line.
Woodson knew he had two opportunities rewrite history.
“I still had a lot of confidence we could score,” he said.
His first pass over the middle into traffic was deflected. Tennessee dropped seven into coverage on fourth down, and Woodson’s final pass to Tamme sailed out of the back of the end zone.
The wait continued. The streak grew longer.
“That game is probably one of the more difficult games to think about,” Woodson said. “In terms of recognizing what was at stake, and what we were able to accomplish if we had the ability to come away with a win … we had an opportunity to come away with a highlight win that obviously would have affected the way people viewed the program.”
Why not now?
Media predicted the 2015 Kentucky team to finish sixth in the SEC East, but one voter, perhaps in a nod to how open the division appeared to be, picked the Wildcats to win it.
Clay, who has chronicled Kentucky football since the 1980s, said there was a palpable difference in how fans viewed this team, this season.
“Cautiously optimistic,” is how he described it. “People were definitely encouraged, but they’ve been disappointed so many times.”
Kentucky opened SEC play with a rare road win — its first in six years — at South Carolina.
“We had a party,” UK quarterback Patrick Towles told reporters after the 26-22 victory. “It was a lot of fun going off somebody’s else field a winner.”
The Wildcats won, in part, when Denzil Ware scooped up Pharoh Cooper’s fumble on a two-point conversion and raced 98 yards. A play designed to tie the score at 24 instead provided Kentucky its winning margin.
Coach Mark Stoops told reporters the win was “another step in the right direction.”
“We are certainly very far from the finished product, but I really like where they are headed,” he said.
Where are the Wildcats headed? After beating No. 25 Missouri and pushing traditional power Auburn in an electric Thursday night atmosphere in Lexington, Kentucky is 2-2 with four SEC games remaining. Each opponent is unranked.
It’s quite possible Kentucky is heading toward its first winning season in the SEC since 1977.
“It would be fantastic,” Woodson said. “A lot of former players take a lot of pride in the university and absolutely love Kentucky football. To see what those guys are accomplishing right now, it brings a lot of pride. Some of these guys are in the NFL and they have bragging rights.
“To come away with five wins would do wonders for the former players but, more important, would do wonders for the program.”
Accomplishing that goal, erasing those ghosts, would produce an added benefit, one that made Woodson smile.
Doing so would mean Kentucky’s hated next-door-neighbor, Indiana, would then hold the longest streak without a winning conference record — 1993 would replace 1977.
“I did not know that,” Woodson said, laughing at the possibility. “Hopefully we’re able to break that streak. That would be great.”