By Dr. Ken 


In the New York City metropolitan area, every football season brings out the sardonic humor of sportscasters, sports talk show radio hosts, and even the national media as they commiserate with long suffering New York Jets fans. It is easy to both ridicule and empathize with fans of a team that does not win championships, whose pre-season hope is usually dashed to pieces by the time the color of the leaves on the northeastern United States trees turn from green to gold and orange, and which never seems to fulfill the promise of the available talent. The fans of the University of Kentucky football program, as long suffering as Jets fans, can no doubt relate well to the emotions of their Jets brethren. “Everyone knows” that Kentucky is basketball country and as a die-hard anti basketball fan, even I well know the crazed level of enthusiasm that “hoops” brings to that specific state. My wife is a native of Indiana and perhaps a similar thread could be written about the University of Indiana football program relative to the emotion evoked by basketball throughout the high school and college ranks there.


The Bear Bryant era has remained the yardstick of success for downtrodden UK football fans


Kentucky however, seems to hire football coaches with the expectation that the entire sports culture, and perhaps the social culture of the state will change, and they will somehow ascend to the top of the Southeastern Conference football standings. Long time fans of the Wildcats often look back fondly to the Bear Bryant era of the late 1940’s and early ‘50’s to note great teams and players, and they seem to forget, traveling hand-in-hand with a general lack of knowledge, that the UK football team actually produced a record good enough to win an SEC title with a 10 – 1 squad as recently as 1977. Perhaps phrasing the last sentence as I did and noting the mid-1970’s as “recently” indicates my skewed perspective on sports, but with so few outstanding teams, Kentucky football fans hold those teams with a special emotion. Unfortunately for many of those same fans, they are shamed by the fact that those mid-1970’s teams were marked by NCAA violations and probation,  rumors and allegations of drug use and point shaving, and in at least one case, a conviction for kidnap and murder.    


Coming out of a typical period of losing, the end of the Charles Bradshaw era carried the additional stigma of a national scandal that included coaching brutality and rumors of sexual impropriety. When Notre Dame defensive coordinator John Ray was hired to replace Bradshaw, his enthusiastic predictions for immediate success were seized upon by the fan base and expectations went sky high. The unfortunate results were typical Kentucky seasons with Ray limping through his final season with a four year record of 10-33. Upon leaving Kentucky he stated, “I feel it will be a lot easier for my successor than it was when I came, and I certainly mean no reflection on Charlie (Bradshaw).” He noted the quality of the players he had recruited and the construction of a new stadium and then said, “If I had it to do over, there’s one mistake I wouldn’t make. I wouldn’t come in, at the beginning, so enthusiastic. I’m afraid I gave the people the idea I was a miracle worker. They thought I meant right now, but I wasn’t really saying that. I was talking about what we could accomplish in time…I felt I had to get people’s interest in our program…” When Fran Curci was hired away from the University of Miami for the 1973 season, he toned down his predictions but immediately caused hard feelings and brought negative publicity to the program by trying to convince a number of his Hurricanes players to follow him to the Bluegrass State. The new coach delivered a much improved football product but brought a dark cloud with him. The improvement came steadily and culminated in two excellent seasons, especially by Kentucky standards. The 1976 team’s 8-4 record included a Peach Bowl victory over North Carolina and the ’77 squad posted a great 10-1 mark, with only an early season slip-up versus Baylor preventing an undefeated season. A bowl game appearance was conspicuously absent at the conclusion of the 1977 regular season final because the program was already hip deep in NCAA violations and probation.


Typical of numerous programs that get “too good too fast,” Fran Curci brought UK football to new heights but suffered the consequence of NCAA sanctions


Problems first surfaced in 1975 when All American tight end Elmore Stephens was drafted in the first round of the NFL draft by the Kansas City Chiefs, yet failed to get through training camp with them or the Giants. He was rumored to be involved with a drug-deal-gone-bad kidnapping and murder that he was in fact, convicted for. Further rumors implicated UK’s star running back Alfred “Sonny” Collins, a flashy performer who adopted a Superfly look alike appearance off of the gridiron.


Defensive back Tony Gray, who quit the squad during the point shaving allegations of the ’75 season, said of the talented running back Sonny Collins, pictured above, that “I’m not the one with the new car and fine threads.” Collins knew how to sport the fine threads of the mid-1970’s!



Collins was never indicted but the rumors persisted in conjunction with a point shaving scheme by a number of the Wildcat team members. This scuttled the ’75 season, reducing it to a two win disaster but the 1976 team bounced back strongly and the ’77 squad would have been SEC Champions had they been eligible for the title. They weren’t due to illegal benefits provided to recruits and players that included such outlandish items as tractors which were funneled to the business of a player’s father so that he could sell them for cash. After the excellent on-the-field but “black-eyed” off-the-field 1977 season that found the Wildcats ranked ninth in the nation, it was back to the “usual” with four, five, three, and another three win season before Curci was relieved of his duties.

The no-frills look of UK football under John Ray for most of his tenure featured blue flanking stripes on a plain white helmet shell


One of the positive things Curci did was to brighten up the helmet design of the ‘Cats when he arrived on campus. John Ray, who favored a no frills uniform appearance, perhaps inspired by his days at Notre Dame, attired his squad in white shells with two royal blue flanking stripes, though he dressed that up for his final squad that wore the addition of a circular, blue decal on each side of the white shell with “Cats” inscribed within.


The “Cats” decal was a simple but significant upgrade to the Wildcats helmets in John Ray’s final season of 1972


Curci’s ’73 team had a very noticeable and well accepted outline of the state of Kentucky on each side of the white shell that included a Wildcat head and the inclusion of award stickers placed on the rear of the helmet. This was a terrific design that was short-lived and changed to the blue “K” logo that remained on the helmet throughout the remainder of Curci’s reign in Lexington.

All Time New Jersey high school legend Mike Fanuzzi had led Hasbrouk Heights High School to their undefeated, sectional State Championship season in 1969 but played multiple positions at Kentucky under two coaching staffs. His teammate, on that legendary high school squad, fullback Greg Toal, turned Don Bosco Prep into one of the nation’s outstanding high school teams. The state outline helmet logo was a huge hit with UK fans.                 


Unfortunately, the fate of Kentucky football remains where it seems to have been stuck for decades, taking second seat to basketball with anything above a break-even season and a minor bowl game appearance considered to be a significant accomplishment. For one of the most beautiful campuses in the nation, and a sterling and underrated academic reputation, it is a shame that they cannot consistently do better.