Mark Story: Rutgers coaching scandal parallels UK's 'Thin Thirty'

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 4, 2013 

For certain former University of Kentucky athletes, the videos of now former Rutgers men's basketball coach Mike Rice firing balls at players in practice and abusing them verbally were distressingly familiar.

Dave Gash and Bill Jenkins both played end on UK's star-crossed 1962 football team, the squad that was subjected to sadistic coaching techniques by first-year Kentucky head man Charlie Bradshaw. The new coach's methods were so extreme, almost 60 players quit the UK team.

The few who stuck it out went down in Kentucky Wildcats lore as The Thin Thirty, a reference to how many players that were left by the time the '62 season started.

In separate conversations last week, both Gash, now 73, and Jenkins, 70, used the same word to describe their reactions to the fact that some major-college athletes are still being subjected to abuse in the guise of coaching motivation.

"It really amazed me that type of thing is still going on," Gash said. "What really amazed me, that the kids today put up with that kind of thing. I understand that (a coach) is an authority figure, has power over you, but it still really amazes me that modern kids took it."

Said Jenkins: "It just amazed me that, after all the stuff we went through at UK with Charlie (Bradshaw) so many years ago and some of the stuff we know went on with other coaches (in the past), that the NCAA or the schools themselves don't have things like went on at Rutgers snuffed out. It's hard to believe."

Since ESPN uncovered the practice videos that led to Rice's downfall, what I've found amazing is that other examples of such over-the-line coaching behavior have started trickling in from other college sports programs.

After the Rice incident, Rutgers ordered a university-wide review of its coaches' practice video. As a result, the school suspended its men's lacrosse head man, Brian Brecht, for verbal abuse of players. Veteran Eastern Connecticut State baseball coach Bill Holowaty recently stepped down after the university suspended him while investigating charges he had displayed "public cursing and abusive language."

Wisconsin-Green Bay men's basketball coach Brian Wardle has been accused by a former player of using homophobic slurs and not allowing the player to leave a pre-season training exercise to use the bathroom even though the player said he was sick. As a result, the player said he wound up defecating in his pants.

Wisconsin-Green Bay has retained an outside attorney to conduct an investigation of Wardle and the allegations.

One would like to think no current athletes are being subjected to what the poor 1962 Kentucky football team faced.

Bradshaw, a Bear Bryant disciple, replaced Blanton Collier after the 1961 season. The new coach was apparently intent on re-creating the brutal training regimens the Bear had used during his ultra-successful earlier stint at Kentucky.

He put his new team through a nightmarish off-season "conditioning" program.

"At that time, the university had these handball courts. Well, (the football staff) put up these pads all around those courts, then would send groups of football players in there and you had to fight your way out," Jenkins recalls. "Basically, the last man standing got out and everybody else in there was trying to put your body back together."

Gash says once the actual football practices started, it was common "for an assistant coach to run up behind you and hit you in the back of the head with a forearm. Or they'd put you in the middle of drills as a tackling dummy and just keep you there. It was brutal."

Even amid a mass exodus of players from UK, the Kentucky sports media was mostly docile in terms of digging to find out what was going on, Gash said. The university itself didn't seem real curious, either, he said.

"One of our team doctors tried to stand up for us," Gash said. "But he was the only one. It was just a different time, people were not as questioning of authority. I also think people had, at that time, fairly recently seen Bryant (win big) at Kentucky and thought, well, (harsh training) worked. I think people looked at Bradshaw as sort of returning to what they'd had here before."

What has always fascinated me about what I would call the Bobby Knight style of coaching through intimidation is why a type of behavior that no adult would ever take from a boss in a workplace is somehow seen as acceptable for adults to display toward college kids in the context of sports motivation.

The goal of coaching is to cajole the highest level of achievement possible from each athlete. The means of achieving that should not include harsh physical contact between coach and player nor language so insulting that it reaches the level of abuse.

That should have been true when The Thin Thirty was going through hell in 1962.

It should be true now. Period.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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