Help make Cats-Vols a rivalry again

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 26, 2009 

My wife's sister-in-law is a Tennessee native and a Volunteers fan, my neighbor proudly hangs his orange "T" flag, and the man who sings in the choir at church lives and dies by what the Vols do on Saturdays.

Back before Tennessee's football domination of Kentucky went from a trend to ridiculous to a national record of embarrassment, there once was a day when, if you were a UK fan, you could engage in some good ol' fashioned back-and-forth with those misguided Big Orange souls.

It's time to bring those days back.

Coaches say every game is a big game. Saturday night is a big game. Kentucky could break the Vols' 24-year, 24-game invisible grip. Kentucky could finish second in the SEC East. Kentucky could position itself for a better bowl game.

Moreover, Kentucky could return the phrase "hated Vols" to the local lexicon.

See, I'm just old enough to remember when the Vols were hated, or at least hated as defined by a good sports rivalry.

I remember when Kentucky claimed that Tennessee once cut the phone lines to its press box during halftime, when Fran Curci shook Johnny Majors' hand during the 1981 pre-game and told the Tennessee coach the Cats were going to kick his fanny — and they did.

Joker Phillips remembers, too. UK's head coach in waiting was a wide receiver on the 1984 team, the last Kentucky squad to topple Tennessee. Phillips was blocking his fanny off for George Adams, who went over 1,000 yards for the season in a 17-12 Kentucky victory in Knoxville.

"Me blocking out there for him, it was exciting for me because he was my roommate," Phillips remembered after Wednesday's practice at the Nutter Center.

Did Phillips ever think 24 years would pass without another Kentucky victory?

"No, I didn't," he said. "When I left, we were 2-2 against them in my career here. I thought it was a series that was going to go back and forth."

Instead, bragging rights became all-access Dollywood, though, after a while, even the Vols got bored with bragging since they had Florida and Alabama and Georgia to worry about. Kentucky was/is an afterthought.

"I want to make this a rivalry again," Rich Brooks has said more times than Tennessee has victories.

He needs some help. Kentucky football fans are sometimes criticized for getting up only when a Florida or an Alabama comes to town, for grumbling too quickly, or for failing to create the ear-splitting decibel levels you hear in Rupp Arena before heading to a good audiologist.

You could argue that, too often, Kentucky has given its football faithful too little to cheer about, and you'd be right.

But this Saturday is different. This team is 7-4 despite losing its starting quarterback. It has won three conference road games. It has rallied from daunting deficits to pull out victories. Driving around town this week I saw an old friend, a "Beat Tennessee" bumper sticker, and it felt less like a pipe dream and more like a possibility.

So Saturday night, Big Blue Nation needs to set a football attendance record. It needs to park itself in its seats early to give this group of seniors a proper send-off. It needs to work up the courage to tell that second-guessing loudmouth — you know, the one sitting behind you — to knock it off and get with the program.

And it needs to quit sitting on its hands and start bringing the noise — not when things are going good, but when things aren't going so good, because that's when the team needs it most.

Most of all, it needs to help make Kentucky-Tennessee a rivalry again.

That, said Phillips, "Would mean the world to me."

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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