Billy Reed: Stoops’ Cats will be fighting to overcome ‘Curse of Blanton Collier’ in Vanderbilt showdown

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The titanic struggle between Kentucky and Vanderbilt, perennial doormats of the Southeastern Conference, will draw scant notice on the Saturday scoreboard shows. But to Wildcat coach Mark Stoops, it might be the pivotal game in his uphill battle to become the first Wildcat coach since Blanton Collier to build a consistent winner in Lexington.

For years, the Cats and Commodores have fought each other to avoid the SEC cellar. UK leads the series, 42-41-4, but Vandy has won three of the last four and will be slightly favored Saturday. The Cats are 4-5, the Commodores 3-5. As usual, the crowd will be split 50-50 because UK fans in western Kentucky always find ways to get tickets in Nashville.

All Blanton Collier did over his eight years was win .631 per cent of his games and beat Tennessee almost every year. But that wasn’t good enough for UK, which fired him after the 1961 season (Wikipedia Photo)

All Blanton Collier did over his eight years was win .631 per cent of his games and beat Tennessee almost every year. But that wasn’t good enough for UK, which fired him after the 1961 season (Wikipedia Photo)

Deep into his third season as the UK boss, Stoops occupies a seat that, if not yet hot, is getting warm. The Cats were expected to be better than 4-5 at this point, and they should be. But they’ve made too many mistakes, dropped too many Patrick Towles passes, gotten too many penalties, and generally found ways to lose games that were there for the taking.

So now UK must win two of its last three to become eligible for its first bowl invitation since 2011. One of them, a Nov. 21 home date against Charlotte, looks to be an automatic W, although it’s probably not wise to grant anything to a team that needed an overtime to beat Eastern Kentucky.

But the other two games – Vandy and Louisville on Nov. 28 in Commonwealth Stadium – figure to be tossups, at best. The Cats could win both or lose both. A split, assuming a win over Charlotte, would leave them at 6-6, their best record under Stoops but still a disappointment considering the talent available through Stoops’ commendable recruiting efforts.

And so continues a mystery that I’ve been unable to solve while following UK football since 1953: Why does UK have so much trouble building a program that’s good enough to at least consistently finish at least in the middle of the Southeastern Conference pack?

At least Vanderbilt has a couple of good excuses. It’s the league’s only private member and it employs its highest academic standards. In other words, Vandy’s recruiting base is different, and more difficult, than any of its league rivals. But that’s hardly the case with UK, a large state university that boasts excellent facilities, a devoted fan base, and a vibrant campus located in the heart of a lovely city instead of a Godforsaken cow town.

So I just don’t get the chronic futility, and I refuse to believe in The Curse of Blanton Collier.

A native of Paris and graduate of Georgetown College, Collier left Paul Brown’s side in the NFL to accept the daunting task of replacing Paul “Bear” Bryant at UK in 1954. All he did over the next eight years was win .631 per cent of his games and beat Tennessee almost every year. But that wasn’t good enough for UK, which fired him after the 1961 season.

He then returned to Cleveland, replaced Brown, and coached the Browns to the 1964 NFL championship.

Mark Stoops has proved he can recruit. But now it’s reasonable to ask if he can coach (UK Athletics Photo)

Mark Stoops has proved he can recruit. But now it’s reasonable to ask if he can coach (UK Athletics Photo)

No UK coach since then has matched Collier’s winning percentage. In fact, no UK coach since then has won as much as half his games. Other programs find the right coach every now and then, if only by accident, but not the Big Blue.

It’s not for lacking of trying. Since Collier, UK has tried accomplished veteran coaches (Jerry Claiborne, and Rich Brooks) and fiery younger coaches (Fran Curci and Hal Mumme). It has tried Bryant disciples (Charlie Bradshaw) and the top assistant at Notre Dame (John Ray).

It has tried alumnus coaches (Bradshaw, Claiborne, and Joker Phillips) and outsiders (Ray, Curci, Guy Morriss, and Brooks), and it has even hired the head coach at Alabama coming off a Sugar Bowl appearance (Bill Curry).

The best season since the Collier era came in 1977, when the Wildcats rolled to a 10-1 record and were ranked as high as No. 6 nationally. However, they were not allowed to play in a bowl because of NCAA recruiting transgressions – the same sort of thing that ended Mumme’s tenure after the 2000 season.

During these six decades, every other SEC team – with the exception of Vanderbilt and Arkansas – has enjoyed its day in the national sun. Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and LSU have won national championships. Ole Miss and Mississippi State have made national magazine covers. Texas A&M has produced Johnny Football, South Carolina carved out some success under The Old Ball Coach, and Missouri made it to the SEC title game.

And then there’s Kentucky. Poor old stumbling, bumbling, fumbling Kentucky. The Wildcats have not defeated Florida since 1984, the longest such rivalry streak in the nation. They own only one victory over Tennessee since 1986. They have not played in one of the Big Five bowls – Rose, Orange, Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta – since 1952.

Which brings us to Stoops and the current team.

Stoops came to UK with an excellent football pedigree. His brother Bob is the successful head coach at Oklahoma. He was the defensive coordinator at perennial national power Florida State before answering the call from UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart. Any way you looked at it, he seemed ready to be a head coach.

The team’s 2-10 record in Stoops’ first season was more than offset by his success on the recruiting trail. Ditto for last-season’s 5-7 record, although some fans were a bit alarmed by UK’s 0-6 finish after a 5-1 start. The preseason hype was extensive, and the prospect of an improved team playing in a renovated stadium produced an increase in season ticket sales.

The Cats started well enough. They beat South Carolina on the road before anybody knew that the Gamecocks were bad enough to lead Coach Steve Spurrier to resign in midseason. They should have defeated Florida at home. The squeaker over Eastern Kentucky put the team at 4-1, but it also was a huge flashing red sign that the trouble might be brewing.

First came a 30-27 home loss to overrated Auburn, a game the Cats should have won. Then came the blowouts – 42-14 at Mississippi, 52-21 to Tennessee at home, and 27-3 at Georgia. Alarmingly, the streak has been characterized by confusion and bickering on the sidelines, running arguments with officials, and uninspired play-calling.

The problems are everywhere. Against Mississippi State, UK’s pass rush was so pathetic that Bulldog quarterback Dak Prescott had enough time to order pizza. The return of the “Air Raid” offense, made popular during the Mumme era, has been nothing but one false alarm after another.

As a season that once looked bright has turned dull, UK has been a difficult team to watch. The number of penalties and mistakes is unacceptable. Some mistakes are unavoidable due to the nature of the game, but many are due to poor communication, missed assignments, and poor choices.

Stoops has proved he can recruit. But now it’s perfectly fair and reasonable to ask if he can coach. Heading into the Vandy game, he is trending in the wrong direction and the fans are growing disillusioned.

That’s why the Vandy game is pivotal for him. Win it and a 7-5 record is quite possible. Lose it, and not even a win over Louisville and a 6-6 record would quell the disappointment and perception that Stoops may not be the man, after all, to get UK out of the doormat category.

billy-reed

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby.

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