John Baldwin, the longtime Gator booster from Gainesville, remembers that night in Lexington, Kentucky all too well. A standout offensive tackle during his collegiate playing days at Kentucky, Baldwin was on the dais with Bear Bryant that night in the spring of 1953 when UK held its annual athletic banquet. The Kentucky president called Bryant to the podium where he presented him with a small gift wrapped present. It was a gold, mongrammed cigarette lighter. Then the president turned to the other side of the dais and called Adolph Rupp to the podium where he presented the UK basketball coach with an identical gift-wrapped box, only in that box were the keys to a brand new Cadillac.
“Coach Bryant looked at Mrs. Bryant and she looked back at him,” Baldwin recalled in an interview he did with Gator Country years ago. Baldwin became a Gator booster back in the 1960s when he moved with his family to Gainesville. “That look said everything. He was gone after the next season.”
Bryant, who had posted a 53-21-4 record in the previous seven seasons, was already the winningest football coach in Kentucky history, no small accomplishment at a school that even then was all about the basketball. In 1952, two years after Kentucky won the SEC and beat national champion Oklahoma (polls were BEFORE the bowls in those days), Bryant and the Wildcats went 5-4-2, the worst season he ever had at UK, but substantially better than what Rupp had done. Rupp and Kentucky basketball got the death penalty from the NCAA in 1952-53.
Bryant coached Kentucky in 1953 to a 7-2-1 record but it was his last at Lexington. He left for Texas A&M in December and Kentucky football hasn’t been the same since. Kentucky is 271-372-12 since 1954 with only 18 winning seasons and 11 bowl games. The Wildcats strung together four straight winning seasons and bowl games from 2006-09 the most consecutive winning seasons since Bryant. Since 1987, the year Florida’s 27-game winning streak over the Wildcats began, Kentucky is 123-180-0 while the Gators are 248-81-1 and haven’t endured a losing season since 1979. Saturday night, the Gators (2-1, 1-0 SEC) will have a chance to extend the streak to 28 over the Wildcats (1-2, 0-0 SEC) at Commonwealth Stadium (ESPNU, 7 p.m.)
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The excuse at Kentucky is always the same – “We’re a basketball school.” Proof, Wildcats’ fans point out, is eight national championship banners hanging from the Rupp Arena rafters, three of which have been earned since 1996. During that same stretch, Florida has won two national titles in basketball (2006-07), played in the national championship game (2000) and has made three consecutive Elite Eights (2011-13) while winning three national championships in football (1996, 2006 2008).
It can be done. A football school can be a basketball power, which means there is no excuse that a basketball power can do the same thing. It just takes commitment. Florida is living proof. Kentucky could have been if the school had been smart enough to hang on to Bear Bryant.
Kentucky fans are up in arms and ready to run the basketball coach out of town any year when the Wildcats aren’t in contention for a national championship. Football? Those same fans are content to drive three hours south to Nashville to play a mediocre team from the ACC in the Music City Bowl. At Commonwealth Stadium there are large murals commemorating UK’s 2006-07 Music City Bowl championship teams that beat Clemson and FSU.
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Injuries to Florida’s leaders on either side of the ball – quarterback Jeff Driskel and nose tackle Dominique Easley – have created a sense of hope in the Kentucky camp that an upset is possible this year and the excitement still hasn’t worn off that UK landed one of the Stoops brothers (youngest brother Mark) as its head coach. Even Dick Vitale got caught up in the excitement Friday when he announced an upset in the making on Twitter. Dick should stick with basketball. He’s good at it.
The hard reality that Kentucky must face is that its wide receivers will be going against the likes of Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy and Vernon Hargreaves, who will all three pick up hefty NFL paychecks someday. UK’s offensive tackles will have to handle Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard, who are quicker off the ball and far more athletic than anyone they’ve seen. Easley will be missed, but Will Muschamp is one of the best in the country at scheming the defense. The Gators will compensate and even without Easley they will still be the best defense Kentucky will see this year.
If there is hope for the Wildcats, it is that Tyler Murphy’s performance last week against Tennessee was a fluke. They’re hoping the clock strikes midnight and this Cinderella story will come to an end, but what does that say about the caliber of athletes in your program when you’re hoping the second team quarterback plays like the starter from say … Kentucky?
Kentucky will throw a ton of blitz packages and exotic looks to try to confuse Murphy, but it’s not like Tennessee didn’t try the same tactics last week. No, the Vols didn’t have a week to prepare and scheme for Murphy but once Murphy took over they didn’t hesitate to throw the kitchen sink at him. It didn’t work.
While it can be said that Kentucky has had a week to see Murphy’s film to scheme and prepare, it’s easily lost in translation that Murphy also will have a week to get ready for Kentucky. There is every good chance that he’ll be salivating at the chance to burn those Kentucky corners and turn the ball up the field for big gains off the read option. Tennessee’s defense wasn’t very good. Kentucky’s might be worse.
The fact is that in spite of the injuries, Florida is still Florida and Kentucky is still Kentucky. Florida is one of the league’s elite programs and when it comes to football, the Wildcats are bottom feeders and have been, for the most part, since Bear Bryant got dissed by the UK president. Maybe the injuries will make this game closer than what it would have been if the Gators had shown up healthy, but even without Jeff Driskel and Dominique Easley, Florida has far more talent and athleticism that Kentucky can’t even begin to match.
Could Kentucky win Saturday night? Sure. Donkeys could fly, too, but when is the last time you saw a flying donkey? For sure, not since 1986.