UK-Vandy lacks prestige, not personality

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 12, 2010 

KENTUCKY VANDERBILT

Kentucky quarterback Dusty Bonner pumped his fist after the Cats denied Vanderbilt a bowl berth in 1999.

JOHN RUSSELL — ASSOCIATED PRESS

Alabama-Auburn runs on the fuel that is unadulterated loathing.

Florida-Georgia often has championship implications.

Even Mississippi-Mississippi State carries a memorable moniker, The Egg Bowl.

Then there is the SEC football series that will renew again here in Lexington Saturday. It may be created by the same compulsion that causes necks to crane when passing an overturned SUV, but is there any regular Southeastern Conference football matchup that has a more distinct personality than Kentucky-Vanderbilt?

Cats vs. 'Dores means gray, dreary November Saturdays spent in half-empty stadiums.

It is Bill Curry losing five times (1991-95) in a row to Vandy as Kentucky head coach — and, somehow, NOT losing his job over it.

(Quick quiz: What is the more improbable, dubious coaching distinction: Curry's five-game skid against the Commodores or Gerry DiNardo going 4-0 against UK as Vanderbilt's head man but only 2-3 against the Wildcats as LSU coach?)

In a low-stakes sort of way, Cats vs. 'Dores means constantly high stakes.

All-time, Kentucky leads the series 40-38-4. The Cats have won five of the last six and seven of the last nine against Vanderbilt.

Since the SEC went to division play in 1992, UK and Vandy have finished in the bottom two spots in the East eight different times.

Wiseacres may periodically refer to the matchup as The Toilet Bowl, but there is a peculiar brand of intensity that animates a rivalry that is so often played to escape the cellar.

The pressure of Cats vs. 'Dores ratchets up even higher in those historically rare, albeit increasingly common, seasons when one or both have bowl aspirations at stake.

Poor Vandy.

Starting in 1999, Vanderbilt has played Kentucky four times in which the Commodores needed only beat the Cats to ultimately go bowling.

In 1999, Vandy lost to UK.

In 2005, Vandy lost to UK.

In 2007, Vandy lost to UK.

In 2008, Vandy didn't lose to UK — it broke through and earned the elusive, bowl-qualifying sixth victory for the first time since 1982 with a 31-24 win in Commonwealth Stadium.

That night, then-Commodores coach Bobby Johnson may well have been the most relieved human being I have ever seen.

Longtime connoisseurs of Cats vs. 'Dores point to the 1999 renewal as a historic high point.

That year, Kentucky entered the game 5-4. Vanderbilt entered the game 5-4.

Each team had only one contest remaining on their schedules after their meeting with each other — a hopeless matchup with defending national champion Tennessee. So both UK and Vandy were in a winner-take-all battle for bowl eligibility against each other.

Never have two programs trying to overcome dubious histories worked so hard to give a game away.

UK was clinging to a 19-17 lead with 3:10 left in the game when its quarterback, Dusty Bonner, fumbled a snap on what was to be a quarterback sneak on third-and-inches at the Kentucky 39.

Quicker than one could say 'another Cat-astrophe,' Vanderbilt recovered.

Ah, but not a minute later, Vandy had third-and-short at the UK 31. The 'Dores gave the football to standout back Jimmy Williams, who ran for the first down — only to see a Kentucky walk-on, Patrick Wiggins, knock the ball from his hands.

Quicker than one could say 'bar the 'Dores,' UK recovered to secure its sixth win and, ultimately, a bid to the Music City Bowl.

That one moment fully encapsulated the essence of Cats vs. 'Dores.

So did another from 2003.

That day, Vanderbilt faced Kentucky having lost a whopping 23 SEC games in a row. Yet against Rich Brooks' first UK team, the brainiacs from Vandy pushed the Wildcats all over Nashville en route to a 28-17 win.

When it was over, something happened after a team beat Kentucky at football that I had never seen before nor have I seen it since:

The Vandy students rushed the field and tore down both goal posts.

This season finds Kentucky (5-5) needing to do what it did in both 2006 and '09: Beat Vandy (2-7) to become bowl eligible.

So it may lack the cachet of The Iron Bowl, but in a perverse way Cats vs. 'Dores has personality.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com.

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