Mark Story: UK football about to drop below .500 all-time for first time since 1902

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 20, 2012 

Sugar Bowl U of Kentucky 1950

Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, shown with UK stars Bill Leskovar, Wilbur Jamerson and Vito "Babe" Parilli before the 1951 Sugar Bowl, left Kentucky with the Cats a cushy 97 games above .500.


Amazingly for a school whose football fortunes have mostly been mired between bad and mediocre for five decades, no University of Kentucky team has taken the field with the UK program having an all-time losing record since the 1903 season opener.

Unless something changes dramatically down the stretch in 2012, that is about to change.

After Saturday night's homecoming loss to 12th-ranked Georgia, Kentucky carried an all-time mark of 579-579-44. Kentucky will travel to Missouri on Saturday in risk of becoming an overall losing football program for the first time since the 1902 season finale.

If you are a history buff like me, it is fascinating to track how UK — long considered an SEC football doormat — managed to go so long without boasting an overall losing record. It's also interesting to gauge how UK's status as an all-time football winner has been slipping away.

Building a wins cushion

On Nov. 27, 1902, the school now known as UK lost to the school now known as Transylvania 6-5. That gave UK an all-time football record of 44-45-6.

The following season began with UK Coach C.A. Wright's bunch (the nickname Wildcats was not adopted until 1909) drubbing the always formidable Cynthiana 39-0 to get back to the .500 mark all time.

From that day, no UK football team has taken the field representing a program with an all-time losing mark.

Kentucky's victory in the 1903 season opener launched a 7-1 season that became the first year in a stretch of 14 straight winning campaigns. Kentucky was 62 games over .500 (134-72-11) at the end of the 1916 season, the last in that winning-season run.

By the time Kentucky joined the SEC beginning with the 1933 season, the Cats were 69 games over .500 (198-129-23).

The Bryant boost

Before the 1946 season, UK hired a Maryland head coach named Paul Bryant. After playing in the SEC for 12 years (Kentucky fielded no team in 1943), the Cats were still 60 games to the good (249-189-27).

The Bear created the golden era of UK football, then bailed for Texas A&M with a 60-23-5 mark following the 1953 season. Bryant left UK 97 games (309-212-32) to the good.

Blanton Collier spent eight honorable years trying to fill the Bear's gargantuan shoes, and went 41-36-3. When Collier was ousted after the 1962 season, Kentucky was 102 games above .500 (350-248-35).

One would have thought a 102-game cushion should have been enough to ensure Kentucky retained the status of all-time winning football program forever.

Winner status slips away

Instead, the drip, drip, drip of nine straight Kentucky coaches (including current UK head man Joker Phillips) with losing marks has led the Wildcats program perilously near falling below the break-even threshold.

The ledger for hard-charging Charlie Bradshaw, with his near-sadistic training philosophies, was minus-16 (25-41-4). In four disastrous years, John Ray shaved 23 (10-33) off the UK all-time mark.

Fran Curci clocked a minus-4 (47-51-2), Jerry Claiborne a minus-5 (41-46-3) and then Bill Curry a horrid minus-26 (26-52). By the time Curry was asked to leave after seven long seasons, Kentucky was only 28 games over .500.

Hal Mumme and the Air Raid offense brought some excitement, but Gamblin' Hal (20-26) shaved six more off the Kentucky all-time standing and left the program under NCAA sanctions that ensured more losing was to come.

In two years, Guy Morriss parlayed a winning season into big Baylor bucks but still left Kentucky having registered a minus-5 (9-14).

So when Rich Brooks took over the Kentucky program in 2003, with the full-impact of Mumme-era probation still to be felt, UK's margin as an all-time winner was down to plus-17 (528-511-44).

A rally in 2006

Over his first three years, Brooks took 16 more (9-25) off that, so that Kentucky entered the 2006 season (537-536-44) on the verge of becoming an all-time loser then.

Twice during that 2006 season, after dropping the season opener at Louisville and then after losing back-to-back games mid-season to South Carolina and LSU, Kentucky saw its all-time mark drop to .500 for the first time since that 1903 season opener.

But the 2006 Cats never became all-time losers. Instead, Kentucky rallied to win five of its final six games that season. It launched a four-year stretch of winning.

In 2007, UK went 8-5, then produced 7-6 marks in each of what became Brooks' final two seasons. When Brooks handed the reins to his chosen successor, Phillips, before the 2010 season, Kentucky had gone back nine games over .500 (567-558-44).

Alas, after the eighth game of his third season Saturday night against Georgia, Phillips had already gone minus-9 (12-21).

There's always hope for upsets, but with an injury-decimated roster and many true freshmen playing, the 2012 Cats seem likely to end this year with the Kentucky football program carrying a status it has not held since the off-season between 1902 and 1903:

That of an all-time loser.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230Email: mstory@herald-leader.comTwitter: @markcstoryBlog:

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