Mark Story: From UK lore, a lesson in why spring football games do not always predict the season ahead

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 24, 2014 

Former UK great Art Still made the "Y" in the spelling of Kentucky as UK defeated Vanderbilt 70-60 in January 2009.

LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

Like everyone else, I'll be eager to see if a quarterback — Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips or true freshman Drew Barker — stakes a claim to the Kentucky Wildcats starting job in Saturday's Blue-White Spring Game.

Many will be curious to see Barker and the other six early enrollees from Mark Stoops' lavishly praised 2014 recruiting class perform in Commonwealth Stadium for the first time.

I'm anxious to watch running back Josh Clemons, who looked so promising in 2011 as a true freshman but has missed the past two seasons because of injuries, again carry the football.

Still, whatever happens Saturday afternoon, there's a lesson from UK football history in why not to read too much into it.

There was once a Kentucky spring game where the fans were so enthused about Wildcats football that UK charged admission to the contest and a respectable crowd still came.

It was a spring game in which the coaches were so confident in Kentucky's talent level, they had a draft of players because they felt they had enough quality depth to field two good teams.

Then, amid all this positive feeling, UK produced a spring game that was an all-time dud.

"For the first time in recorded football history, Kentucky defeated itself in the annual Blue-White Game," began D.G. FitzMaurice's game story in the following day's Lexington Herald. "After 40 frustrating, fruitless minutes, the scoreboard stared blankly: Blue 0, White 0."

According to the article, the game was so bad that the largest cheers from the crowd of 12,261 in Commonwealth Stadium were for:

1.) a fake field goal that failed;

2.) a dog running on the field;

3.) the UK men's golf team being recognized for winning a tournament.

For those with an appreciation of UK football history, it should be interesting to note that this scoreless masterpiece was played on April 16, 1977.

Yep, the same Kentucky team that depressed its fan base with one of the least entertaining spring games ever proceeded the following fall to go 10-1, including a perfect 6-0 in Southeastern Conference games.

Led by defensive end Art Still and quarterback Derrick Ramsey and coached by Fran Curci, the '77 Cats beat Penn State, LSU, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee — and might have made a bid for the national title had UK not been on NCAA probation.

For all of us too young to remember Bear Bryant's coaching days at Kentucky but who do recall the 1970s, there has been exactly one truly great University of Kentucky football team in our lifetimes.

So how could that very team have produced such a bummer of a spring game?

"I don't remember much about (the 1977 spring game) but I'll tell you what had to have happened," Curci, now 75, said Thursday via the phone. "I'll guarantee you, that spring game, it was a very controlled scrimmage."

With a deep, talented nucleus returning from a team that had won the Peach Bowl in 1976, Curci's goal for '77 spring practice was to get his deep, talented team through to the fall intact.

"I was never real big on spring training to begin with," Curci said. "It seemed like every damn spring, somebody would get hurt, somebody's knee would get hurt. (In 1977), we had talent, and we knew it. It probably wasn't real exciting for the fans, but we just wanted to get through the spring game."

This Saturday, the most interesting thing might be if the Kentucky fan base, one season after a massive spring football game turnout estimated at 50,831, again makes a "football matters here" statement at the turnstiles.

Because of construction resulting from the ongoing Commonwealth Stadium renovation, only 42,500 free tickets were available for the 3:30 p.m. game. As of Thursday afternoon, 40,500 of them had been claimed, UK football publicist Tony Neely said.

"Because of the construction, we can't match last year's crowd (size)," Neely said. "We're still looking forward to the second-largest crowd ever to see a spring game at Kentucky."

So, UK football fans, enjoy some springtime tailgating; check out how the stadium renovation is progressing; heck, root for your favorite in the starting QB derby.

Just remember the lesson of 1977: Whatever happens in the spring game does not necessarily mean anything for the season to come.

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

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