Each weeknight, Bear Bryant sent around an assistant coach to enforce a curfew for the Wildcats’ football team.
“Bob was a bit of a bounder when he first came to UK,” said Humsey Yessin, a UK basketball manager at the time Gain was a Kentucky football star. “What Bob would do, he would put on his clothes, then get in bed and pull the covers all the way up. So he’d be there for the bed check, then, once it was over, he would sneak out.”
Inevitably, the Bear got wind of how Gain was beating his system.
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“They had one assistant coach whose job was to stay after practice and run the guys Coach Bryant wanted run, the guys in trouble,” Yessin said. “They were really running Bob hard — and he hated that. So it got to the point, he almost became like another coach. He became the guy helping Coach Bryant keep everybody else in line because he hated that running so much.”
Gain, who died Monday at 87, is one of the best football players ever to play for UK. A two-way tackle, he was a two-time first-team All-American (1949 and ’50) and won the Outland Trophy — given to the nation’s best interior lineman — in 1950.
Joe B. Hall, the former UK basketball coach, overlapped with Gain as a UK student.
Hall remembers Gain doing belly flops off the highest diving platform in Lexington.
“He would go off the tower and land directly on his stomach as a means of toughening himself up,” Hall said. “He was 6-foot-3, about 250 pounds, and back then that was a big man. We thought he was a giant, but he could move. He loved to leave his feet, dive all out, and tackle you. Bob Gain on the football field was intimidating.”
Along with star quarterback Vito “Babe” Parilli, Gain was the face of Kentucky football during Bryant’s golden era.
In 1949, Gain’s junior year and Parilli’s sophomore season, UK took a 9-2 record into an Orange Bowl meeting with Santa Clara. Leading up to the game, Bryant worked his team relentlessly in the south Florida heat.
After Santa Clara scored a 21-13 upset, many felt the hard-charging Kentucky coach had overdone it, that UK had left its best football on the practice field.
The next season, with UK 10-1 and going into the Sugar Bowl against No. 1 Oklahoma, Bryant did not repeat the over-practicing mistake.
According to the Gain family legend, UK’s star tackle was the reason for that.
“Bob always said before that (Oklahoma) game, he went fishing with Bear Bryant,” said John Walls, a Gain son-in-law.
Walls says Gain told him that something Bryant said while they were fishing made the tackle believe the UK coach intended to practice his team as hard before the Sugar Bowl as he had done before the Orange Bowl.
“Bob said he tipped the boat and (Bryant) fell out, then (Gain) wouldn’t let (Bryant) back out of the water until he promised not to practice them like the year before,” Walls said.
That story seems kind of unbelievable, I said.
“I didn’t believe it either, but Bob swore it was true,” Walls said.
Kentucky beat Oklahoma 13-7 in that Sugar Bowl, snapping a 31-game Sooners winning streak.
It’s still the greatest win in UK football history.
After his Kentucky playing days, Gain had a long, successful career with the Cleveland Browns. He played in five Pro Bowls and was a member of NFL championship teams in 1954, ’55 and ’64.
Across the years, Gain was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, the West Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, the Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame and the UK Athletics Hall of Fame.
To Gain’s lament, induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame never came.
“He was up for it three or four times, and he was really disappointed they didn’t put him in,” Walls said. “Now he’s died without ever going in. I think that was the one great regret of his life.”