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Jamie Vaught: At 91, Bell County native Homer Rice looks back at career as football coach, administrator

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part column about Kentuckian Dr. Homer Rice who had an illustrious career in football coaching and athletic administration. He also recruited Greg Page of Middlesboro who became the first black football player to sign with UK.

If you follow sports, you probably have read or heard about former UK assistant football coach Dr. Homer Rice even though the Bell County native has been retired for a long time.

But Rice – a member of 16 Halls of Fame throughout the country — is still teaching a college course at Georgia Tech where he once served as the longtime athletics director before he stepped down from his post in 1997.  

“This is my 21st year,” said Dr. Rice recently of his leadership class.  “At age of 91, I am the oldest professor at Georgia Tech.”

He also has written numerous articles and several books, including “Leadership Fitness: Developing and Reinforcing Successful, Positive Leaders.”

Dr. Homer Rice

Before his outstanding high school and collegiate careers at Highlands High School in Fort Thomas and Centre College in Danville where he was a star athlete and quarterback, Rice attended an elementary school (from grades 1 to 6) in Pineville where he also was the mascot for Pineville High’s football team, which included Rice’s older brother during the 1930s.  When his father, a Methodist minister, was appointed to a church in Middlesboro, Rice went to a junior high school there and met his future wife – a pretty girl named Phyllis Callison Wardrup.

Interestingly, Rice – who served in the U.S. Navy in the South Pacific Theatre during World War II — also was a good baseball player as he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization as a catcher during the Jackie Robinson era.  But when Rice eventually competed with future Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella on the field, he wisely decided to concentrate on football.

During the 1950s, Rice began his career as a high school football coach in Tennessee and Kentucky, including Fort Thomas High School, where he compiled a stunning 102-9-7 record in 10 years, winning several Coach of the Year awards, and developed the famed Triple Option play.

After UK football coach Blanton Collier, despite a respectable eight-year record of 41-36-3, was dismissed by the university following the 1961 campaign, Charlie Bradshaw took over the Wildcat post and Rice was named as the team’s offensive coordinator, a position he would hold for four years before moving on to national powerhouse Oklahoma.

But things got kind of rough in the UK camp during Bradshaw’s first year at Kentucky. Due to brutal treatment by Bradshaw, a Bear Bryant disciple, many players quit and the 1962 Wildcats, who finished at 3-5-2, were eventually called the “Thin Thirty.”

“Charlie had a lot of outstanding attributes as a football coach, but sometimes he let his energy go in the wrong direction,” explained Rice, who had threatened to leave the program if the head coach didn’t halt his punitive treatment of the players.

Kentucky began to improve in Bradshaw’s third and fourth year, posting 5-5 and 6-4 records, respectively, but returned to its losing ways in the next three years and Bradshaw was fired.

During his UK stay, Rice points out a couple of highlights in school’s football history in 1964 when the Wildcats defeated top-ranked Ole Miss 27-21 in Jackson, Miss., and Rodger Bird’s 95-yard interception for a TD to stop No. 7 Auburn 20-0 in Lexington. He also remembers future Miami Dolphin Larry Seiple’s 70-yard touchdown on a fake punt to help UK beat Ole Miss in 1965 in Lexington. In that same season, Rice’s offensive unit led the conference and the nation in passing yardage.

At Kentucky, Rice also coached quarterback Jerry Woolum of Pineville in 1962.

Not long after UK fired Collier, Rice could have been the head coach at Kentucky, instead of Bradshaw. The school’s athletics director, Bernie Shively, had asked Rice to meet with the search committee about the football job. But Rice felt like he wasn’t ready to be the boss of a major college program.

“I realized after taking the offensive coordinator position (at UK) I could have handled the head position but at the time I was unsure all that was demanded as the head coach,” said Rice.  “I was offered the head job two more times but the timing was not right (at Kentucky).  Also, (I was) offered the Director of Athletics once.”

Added Rice, “(It was) unbelievable how many jobs both coaching and administration I have been offered during my career.  The only job I applied for was my first coaching and teaching position (in Wartburg, Tenn.).”

Later, in 1978, Rice jumped to the NFL and became the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals for a couple of years where coaching legend Paul Brown owned the franchise.

As it turned out, that meant Rice became the only person who has been the head coach at three different levels (high school, collegiate and professional) in the same metro area of Cincinnati, coaching at Fort Thomas High, University of Cincinnati and the Bengals.

Rice said that was interesting, but not important.

Next week: Rice discusses his early days as athletics director at North Carolina and the recruitment of former Middlesboro High School football star Greg Page, who was about to become the first African-American to play SEC football.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com Magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.

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