That Fran Curci’s ’76 Cats will be recognized during a contest with MSU is highly appropriate. The State program played a starring role in the unusual story of how Kentucky claimed its second and most recent SEC football championship.
UK became the 1976 SEC co-champion (with Georgia) on May 23, 1978.
How that happened involved the NCAA, Mississippi State, an MSU defensive lineman named Larry Gillard and the state courts in Mississippi.
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On Oct. 9, 1976, Kentucky traveled to Jackson, Miss., to face Mississippi State. The Wildcats, led by junior quarterback Derrick Ramsey, senior offensive tackle Warren Bryant, junior defensive linemen Jerry Blanton and Art Still and junior linebacker Jim Kovach, were 3-1 after a 22-6 pasting of Penn State.
In Jackson, UK fell behind 14-0 at halftime. Kentucky dominated the second half, but still trailed 14-7 inside the game’s final minute. With 47 seconds left, UK’s Kovach blocked a State punt. With only Wildcats defenders around the ball, all Kentucky had to do was pick it up and run unencumbered into the end zone.
Instead, UK defensive end David Stephens fell on the ball at the MSU 27.
“I’ll tell you what I remember about that game,” Curci said Thursday. “The night before games, we had a long checklist of things we’d go over, what to do if you found yourself in this or that situation. One of the things we went over was, ‘If you block a kick, pick it up and run it. Even if we don’t recover it, it would still be our ball, so try to run it.’ Then it happened — and we would have had a touchdown — and we fell on it.”
Still, UK had the ball and a short field. But the Cats couldn’t punch it in.
The loss to State was the first of three defeats in four games for UK. However, sitting at 4-4, the Cats ended the season by shutting out Vanderbilt, beating Florida, then blanking Tennessee 7-0 in Knoxville to earn a Peach Bowl bid. It was Kentucky’s first postseason trip since Bear Bryant’s era.
In Atlanta, UK whitewashed North Carolina 21-0.
Georgia, which had gone 5-1 in the SEC and beaten Kentucky 31-7 in Lexington, was the undisputed 1976 SEC champion. UK’s season ended 8-4, 4-2 in the SEC.
“We really started to put it together late in that season,” Curci said, “and that set us up for what came the next year.”
In 1977, Kentucky went 10-1 and a perfect 6-0 in the SEC. Alas, UK had been placed on NCAA probation in December 1976, primarily for recruiting violations. So the best Wildcats football team since the days of Babe Parilli and Bob Gain was ineligible for either the league championship or a bowl trip.
“What happened to that ’77 team is still a sore point for me,” Curci said. “I don’t even want to talk about it.”
Yet just as an NCAA ruling can take away a potential SEC title, an NCAA action can retroactively award one, too.
In 1975, the NCAA had tried to declare Mississippi State’s Gillard ineligible because he had allegedly been provided clothing at a discount not available to regular MSU students at a store.
Gillard and Mississippi State filed suit against the NCAA in a Mississippi state court, however, and won. Gillard played throughout 1975, ’76 and ’77.
Subsequently, the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned the lower-court ruling and found in favor of the NCAA.
The NCAA rules in that time held that “when an ineligible player competes under a court order that is subsequently overturned by the courts, the school is subject to further penalties.” So on May 23, 1978, the NCAA ordered Mississippi State to forfeit all its games from 1976 and ’77 as well as all but two of its 1975 contests (in which Gillard had not played).
With MSU forfeiting what had been its 14-7 victory over Kentucky, the Wildcats’ record for 1976 became 9-3, 5-1 SEC.
It took a day or so before the realization set in of what the MSU forfeit would mean to Kentucky. Finally, on page B2 of the May 26, 1978, Lexington Herald, the headline read “Cats may get SEC crown yet.”
The Herald story began: “Action taken by the NCAA eventually cost the University of Kentucky a share of the 1977 Southeastern Conference football championship. Now, another action taken by the NCAA could give the Wildcats a share of the 1976 title.”
Which is what happened. Not quite two years after the 1976 football season ended, Kentucky received a share of its first SEC football championship since Bear Bryant and Co. won the 1950 league title.
Forty years later, Curci says Kentucky’s “retroactive” SEC championship team more than deserves the recognition it will get Saturday night.
“The history shows (winning an SEC crown) has not been that easy a thing to do at Kentucky, so I’m proud that we did it,” Curci said. “We had a good football team (in 1976) that got better as that year went along. And I think the team we put on the field in 1977 backed it up. We were worthy of a championship.”