Fan Fare

Mark Story: Other side of Laettner rocks UK fans' world, too

sheppard showed devil is ok and that can't be ok, can it?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 18, 2011 

Laughingly, Jeff Sheppard fears he is responsible for discombobulating Kentucky Wildcats men's basketball fans everywhere.

This coming March will be the 20th anniversary of both Christian Laettner's famous jump shot that broke the heart of Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA Tournament and of the Duke star's infamous foot stomp on the chest of Aminu Timberlake.

From that point on, hating Laettner has been as natural for a Kentucky fan as breathing oxygen.

Then came this past October when Sheppard, as promoter of an exhibition game in Rupp Arena between former UK stars and a team of "Villains," brought Laettner to Lexington as coach of the bad guys.

The (Blue) Devil turned out to be an OK guy.

"I think that bothers UK fans even more," says Sheppard, the former UK guard and a hero of the Wildcats' 1998 NCAA championship team. "They want to hate Laettner. I have friends saying to me, 'I actually like Laettner, now. What have you done?'"

After the Oct. 24 exhibition in Rupp (in which Laettner's Villains outdueled the Big Blue All-Stars in an overtime), the ex-Duke star and Sheppard did an autograph signing.

"People were coming up asking him to sign 'I Hate Laettner' T-shirts," Sheppard says. "(People were) asking him to put on a UK hat and take a picture. And he was doing all of it. He was really kind and polite to the Kentucky fans."

In his playing days, Laettner, 42, had a reputation for being a bit aloof — OK, actually, kind of a jerk.

"I think what's happened, he's older now," Sheppard says. "He gets it. He appreciates the passion of the Kentucky fan. He appreciates that, 20 years later, they still care so much that he stomped on Timberlake and hit that shot."

By bringing Laettner to Kentucky and having him reveal an appealing side, Sheppard knows he's knocked one of the core foundations out from under the Kingdom of the Blue.

"I think it was neat people got to see that other side of him. He was a lot of fun," Sheppard said. "But deep down, we don't want him to be a nice guy. Deep down, we want to continue to hate Laettner as part of being a Kentucky basketball fan."

UK-UT football echoes

For those with a historical bent, Kentucky's streak-ending 10-7 football victory over Tennessee last month was filled with fun twists.

The way the 2011 Cats beat the Vols to finally snap that embarrassing 26-game losing streak to the Rocky Toppers contains heavy irony involving Tennessee football history.

With its only two eligible quarterbacks injured, UK famously moved wide receiver Matt Roark to quarterback and essentially ran a version of the old single-wing offense.

That attack, invented by Pop Warner in the early 20th century, involves shotgun snaps to (usually) a running back and frequent use of an unbalanced line.

Back in the day, no major football school was more identified with the single-wing than Tennessee. It was the offense that Volunteers coaching icon Gen. Robert Neyland ran throughout his career. Post-Neyland, UT was still running the single-wing into the early 1960s.

Kentucky's current offensive coordinator, Randy Sanders, is a former UT player and longtime Volunteers assistant who is deeply steeped in Tennessee football lore.

"We knew we were going to have to be able to run the ball, so how could we run the ball?" Sanders said in explaining how the Cats approached the 2011 UT game. "We tried to generate a little deception, a little misdirection, mixed in a little bit of option. Basically, nobody wants to hear 'single wing' but it was very similar to the old single-wing offense."

Wherever old football coaches go after they die, you have to figure ex-UK coach Bear Bryant is still giving Gen. Neyland the business about Kentucky ending a 26-game losing streak to UT by running the single wing.

Thin Thirty rerun?

The 2011 UK-UT game also had a link to a famous moment in Kentucky football history.

In 1962, the Wildcats team known as The Thin Thirty beat Tennessee 12-10 in Knoxville on a field goal by Clarkie Mayfield with 16 seconds left. In that game, the Cats surprised UT by coming out in a shotgun attack that, sometimes, featured direct snaps to halfback Darrell Cox.

"In our case, it was a strategic thing," said Dave Gash, an end on that 1962 UK team. "It was done to try to catch Tennessee off guard. We actually started putting it in the Monday before we played Xavier. We worked for two whole weeks on Tennessee, didn't spend a day on Xavier."

The Thin Thirty — so-called because 30 was roughly how many players were left on the Kentucky team after new Coach Charlie Bradshaw introduced a brutal pre-season training regimen — were upset by Xavier 14-9.

But the plan for Tennessee they worked on for two weeks did in the Vols.

"Tennessee hadn't seen us run from the shotgun," Gash recalled Friday. "We'd snap it to Cox, but we also used (normal starting quarterback) Jerry Woolum, too."

Cox, a Miami product, ran for 111 yards. He caught two passes for 84 more, including a 54-yard touchdown from Woolum. Cox completed a crucial pass on the drive that set up Kentucky's winning field goal.

As Roark directed the 2011 Cats to victory over UT, Gash says he and Woolum sat in Commonwealth Stadium feeling a pleasant sense of deja vu.

"It was weird," Gash says. "What happened with Roark, it was very much like what happened with us. As we watched the game unfold, Jerry and I both were saying, 'We've seen this before.'"

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

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