Out-of-state recruiting ban crippled UK football

Recruiting edict cast long shadow

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 22, 2010 

On Jan. 3, 1952, Paul "Bear" Bryant was the toast of Kentucky.

That day, the University of Kentucky football coach and his team flew home to Lexington from Dallas. Two days before, Bryant's Wildcats had whipped Texas Christian University in the Cotton Bowl.

The victory capped a three-year period (1949-51 football seasons) in which UK went 28-8 and played in the Orange, Sugar and Cotton bowls, winning the latter two.

Yet, rather than issue a triumphant statement over back-to-back victories in New Year's Day bowls, Bryant came home to make a stunning announcement.

"The University of Kentucky surprised the football world yesterday," Larry Boeck reported in the Jan. 4, 1952, edition of The Courier-Journal, "when Coach Paul Bryant announced the school has stopped all recruiting of players outside the state (of Kentucky)."

An out-of-state recruiting ban.

Even 58 years later, some say 1/3/52 is the day the music died for UK football.

Why mess with success?

Bryant built the golden era of Kentucky football with sons of the Pennsylvania coal fields and the industrial cities of the Midwest.

Babe Parilli, the strong-armed quarterback on all three of the New Year's Day bowl teams, came from Rochester, Pa. Bob Gain, the 1950 Outland Trophy winner, called Akron, Ohio, home.

Walt Yowarsky, the MVP of UK's epic 1951 Sugar Bowl upset of No. 1 Oklahoma, was from Cleveland. All-America guard Gene Donaldson came from East Chicago, Ind.; All-America end Steve Meilinger from Bethlehem, Pa.

"Pennsylvania, Chicago, Ohio, we had guys from all over," Meilinger said Friday.

Which is why football observers in 1952 were picking jaws off floors after Bryant proclaimed that he and Kentucky would no longer recruit outside the commonwealth.

Bryant said UK would have five scholarships a year available to players from outside the state but those prospects would have to contact UK, not the other way around. The Bear said he envisioned those offers going to sons of either former Kentucky players or other UK alumni.

In a speech to the Louisville Advertising Club, Bryant said "this is strictly my own idea." He told The Courier-Journal that he had been thinking about implementing an out-of-state recruiting ban for years.

"We have confidence in the ability of Kentucky boys to stand toe-to-toe with those of neighboring states and to hold their own in football," Bryant said. "Our big problem is to get all the good boys who are playing in the state. We won't be able to afford to lose any of the top boys."

Was Bryant forced?

Many were skeptical of Bryant's claim that the new policy was his idea.

William Hanna, a longtime Lexington newspaper reporter/editor, was working at the Lexington Leader in 1952.

He says "word on the street" at the time was that then-UK president Herman Donovan had provided the impetus for the change.

To this day, the late 1940s and early 1950s were the era of greatest success in UK sports history.

Besides Bryant's three New Year's Day bowls, Adolph Rupp's basketball program won the 1946 NIT title and NCAA championships in 1948, '49 and '51.

By 1952, however, the luster of UK's sports triumphs was being diminished. After investigations that grew out of the point-shaving scandal that engulfed Kentucky basketball stars Ralph Beard and Alex Groza (and others), UK would stand accused of illegally subsidizing its athletes. Nationally, many charged Kentucky with grossly over-emphasizing sports.

"Some of the (basketball) investigation spilled over into football," said Russell Rice, the former longtime UK athletics publicist and the author of several books on Wildcats sports history.

There were claims at the time that some Kentucky football players had "no-show" jobs in which they were paid but didn't have to work, Rice said.

It was against that backdrop that the ban on out-of-state football recruiting was enacted.

On page 229 of his book The Wildcats: A Story of Kentucky Football, Rice writes that "persons in the know immediately surmised that the plan was not of (Bryant's) own choosing. The university was on the verge of breaking off from its attitude 'of winning at any cost.' And the recruiting plan was just one of many steps."

Rivals gleeful

Other Southeastern Conference schools seemed to have remarkably similar reactions to Bryant's out-of-state recruiting ban: What a splendid thing for Kentucky — but our school has no reason to adopt such a policy.

Auburn Coach Shug Jordan: "I think it's magnificent of the University of Kentucky and Coach Bryant to adopt a policy like that. ... I don't think Auburn would like a rule like that."

Mississippi Coach Johnny Vaught: "We'll take out-of-state boys, naturally, if they are good."

Inside Kentucky, the media praised Bryant for idealism. An editorial in The Courier-Journal called the UK policy "a sound one" and implored other state universities to adopt it.

Earl Ruby, a C-J sports columnist, wrote that "there is no reason to think (the out-of-state recruiting ban) will seriously weaken Kentucky in football. There are enough excellent football players leaving Kentucky high schools each summer to form several strong college teams."

Ruby called on Rupp to implement such a policy for the UK basketball program, too.

Like Bryant, the UK basketball coach had greatly benefited in this era from out-of-state talent like Groza (Ohio), Cliff Barker (Indiana) and Bill Spivey (Georgia).

At first, Rupp refused to give his views on the ban. Pressed after the Cats beat LSU in a basketball game on Jan. 5, Rupp finally directed reporters "to look at the box score."

Rupp had played seven players in a 57-47 win. Six were natives of Kentucky.

The aftermath

Bryant told reporters that it would be at least four years before one could judge whether the ban on out-of-state recruiting was working out for Kentucky football.

The coach himself only made it through two of those years before bailing.

History has long maintained that Bryant left Kentucky due, largely, to his personal rivalry with Rupp.

Others say UK's recruiting loss of Louisville high school football star Paul Hornung to Notre Dame in 1953 was actually the final straw for the Bear.

Losing Hornung, who went on to win the 1956 Heisman Trophy, brought into stark outline for Bryant the box he was in at UK after imposing the out-of-state recruiting ban.

By the time the four years Bryant said were needed to evaluate the policy had elapsed, the Bear was at Texas A&M. Former Cleveland Browns assistant Blanton Collier was the Kentucky football coach.

Collier had both grown up in and started his coaching career in Kentucky. On page 237 of The Wildcats, Rice quotes Collier describing his job interview for the UK position.

"One of the first things Dr. Donovan asked me was if I planned to restrict recruiting to the state of Kentucky," said Collier. "I told him, 'I don't think you can. I have not been in Kentucky for a long time, but I don't think there are enough football players to win with, even if you get them all. You've got to go out of state to recruit.' (Donovan) agreed with me 100 percent."

UK eased the recruiting restriction at that time, Rice said Friday.

However, as quoted in Rice's book, Collier said the damage had already been done.

"The program had lost contact — was out of touch — with those out-of-state people who had been helping Kentucky in their recruiting," Collier said. "They had transferred their allegiance to other schools."

By 1957, UK's record sagged to 3-7. To this day, the 1952 Cotton Bowl remains the last major bowl in which Kentucky has played.

Many factors other than a relatively short-lived ban on out-of-state recruiting explain the historic struggles of University of Kentucky football.

Still, it is a fact that UK football has never gotten back to the level it was at on 1/3/52.

The day the Bear flew home from the Cotton Bowl and made an announcement that shocked the football world.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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