Former University of Kentucky All-Southeastern Conference nose tackle Joey Couch has died at the age of 49.
Couch, a legendary athlete at Paintsville High School, played for the Wildcats from 1988 through 1991. He was an all-state linebacker in football and a Kentucky All-Star in basketball at Paintsville, playing on Sweet Sixteen hoops teams with future UK Unforgettable John Pelphrey.
Couch, who was working as an insurance agent in Pikeville before his death, played at Kentucky for Jerry Claiborne and Bill Curry.
Couch’s wife, Angel, posted on her Facebook page that Couch died from an “acute cardiac event” at 7:45 p.m. Friday at their home.
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“Please keep myself and his boys, Tyler Couch and Braxton Couch, and his brother, David Couch, and his sweet mom Jane Calhoun Couch in your prayers,” Angel Couch’s post said, in part. “We will need it over the next few days and months to come. I will post his visitation and funeral arrangements later.”
Angel Couch’s Facebook post also spoke of her love for her husband.
“This is heartbreaking for me to say and no words can describe how sad I am right now. Joey was my soulmate, the one who made me laugh and the one who made me feel so safe in his arms. I went to sleep every night laying on his chest. It was the best feeling in the world.”
A look back at Joey Couch
Here is the column written about Joey Couch by John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader on Nov. 22, 1991, right before Couch’s final game as a University of Kentucky Wildcat:
There was a time when he was ready to pack his bags and return to Paintsville. There was a time when his mother was going to pick up the phone and dial Tuscaloosa and tell that Alabama coach to get up here to Lexington. There was a time, all the time, when Joey Couch knew Kentucky football would turn around.
But Saturday, when UK plays Tennessee in the season finale in Commonwealth Stadium, for Couch and 10 other seniors, this will be the final time.
“It’s wild,” the senior nose guard said Wednesday, sitting in his dorm, looking back on his four years. “I was talking to Jerry (Bell) about this. It’s your last Monday. Your last Tuesday practice. Your last Wednesday practice. It’s really weird thinking you’re not going to be doing this anymore.”
But maybe not as weird as it is thinking of a Kentucky football team without its senior defensive captain, its heart, its soul, both serious and fun-loving.
“Joey has the ability to go full-speed and play his heart out,” UK Coach Bill Curry said. “And he has the ability to smile when other people can’t. This year has not gone like we wanted it to, but we all try to keep things in perspective, and Joey does have a sense of humor and we love him for it.”
Saturday will mark Couch’s 33rd consecutive start as a Wildcat. He’s been All-Southeastern Conference, pre-season All-American and voted the league’s most underrated player just this year. First and foremost he has been a Kentuckian.
Yes, they can hail from anywhere and play football at UK, but the sons of the home state are different. If that is provincial, it is no less true. It’s the same in football as it is in basketball. They’ve watched it, lived with it, grown up around it.
“If you’re from Kentucky and you’ve got a chance to play for Kentucky there’s extra motivation for you,” said defensive-line coach Bill Glaser, a Wildcats assistant since 1977. “Your first motivation is to play, your second is to win, because everybody in your life is interested in your success. They know about you, they keep up with what you’re doing. And Joey’s from Paintsville. That’s the heart of UK country down there.”
An earlier Paintsville native prompted Couch’s interest in UK football. Tony Mayes was a Cat defensive back, and whenever Couch came to Lexington to see the Big Blue play, Mayes smuggled him into the locker room and introduced him to the guys.
“I kind of got involved with everything,” Couch said. “That kind of made me lean toward coming to Kentucky.”
’Ready to pack my bags’
He arrived as a 220-pound linebacker, promptly hurt his shoulder and was redshirted. The next year, he was moved to defensive tackle for a couple of weeks, then defensive guard. He didn’t like it.
“He came here thinking he was going to be a linebacker or a star running back, he couldn’t make up his mind which,” said Glaser, smiling.
“I was ready to pack my bags,” Couch said of the proposed move. “The first day they put me on the defensive line, one-on-one against the offense. I’d never been down in a three-point stance in my life. I weighed 220, maybe. The first time I hit the (offensive) guy, Coach Glaser started jumping up and down saying, ‘I think we got ourselves a good one.’ If he hadn’t done that, I think I might have left.”
Next thing you know Couch was playing. By his sophomore year, he was a starter. By his junior year, he had even made All-SEC on some lists.
And yet UK still hasn’t quite turned the corner. UK finished 5-6 his first year of playing, 6-5 his first year as a starter.
“But we couldn’t get over the hump,” he said. “It was very frustrating, still is.”
Calling for Curry
After the 1989 season, Coach Jerry Claiborne retired. Just like that. “We had no idea,” Couch said. “He worked so hard at it, I hated to see him go out without getting to a bowl game that last year.”
Plus, Couch’s brother had gone through a coaching change and seen its bad side. David Couch had been a guard on the Army basketball team (just as Joey played basketball on Paintsville’s 1987 state tournament team), playing his freshman year for Mike Krzyzewski. But “Coach K” left for Duke, a new man entered, David Couch played one more year, then quit to spend more time on his studies.
“The whole thing was really a terrible process for him,” said Joey Couch. “So I was really concerned who we were going to get. They kept bringing in these guys, I’m sure they were good coaches, but I’d never heard of ‘em.”
“One night Joey and his mom (Jane) were sitting here,” said E.A. Couch, who, besides being Joey’s dad, played a year of freshman basketball at UK for Adolph Rupp, “and they just decided they were going to call Coach Curry and tell him to come here.”
“My mother had been down to Alabama for our game down there and she said, ‘They’re not treating that man right. He ought to come up here. I’m gonna call him.’ And she was going to. I was, too,” said Joey Couch.
“I was right there with them,” said E.A. Couch.
The call was never made, but then it didn’t have to be. C.M. Newton made his own call. Curry answered — “You can’t believe how excited all the players were,” said Joey Couch — and, unlike some other coaches, the new man did not ignore the older guys to make room for the new blood.
“I think all the seniors are grateful for that,” Couch said. “I don’t think that would have been fair to us. And I think if he had been here he would have recruited us, because we were the best players in the state at that time.”
Frustrating senior year
The turnaround in UK’s football fortunes has yet to happen. UK was 4-7 a year ago. It enters Saturday’s game needing a win to match that mark.
“This year has been tough on Joey,” said his father. “Being a captain, he’s taken on a lot of responsibility. He’s taken it hard because they haven’t been winning.”
“I can’t really put my finger on what’s been going wrong, but it’s not Coach’s fault,” said Joey Couch. “I wouldn’t want to have anybody else in America as our coach. He and Coach Claiborne have taught me things about not just football, but life. Coach Curry has what it takes to win, as far as his character and his beliefs. We just need to get a few more good recruiting classes, that’s all.”
But even then, Curry said, “I’ll tell people, ‘I’ll tell you what, that bunch in ’91 had guts. They just wouldn’t quit.’ “
Nor is Couch about to quit now. He has a practicum to finish next semester in his major of hospital administration. (His goal is to work in a nursing home.) But he is a Kentuckian and he has one college game left, one game for his mom and his dad; for his grandparents, Lake and Delora Large in Jackson, “who send me little care packages all the time”; for his girlfriend, Brooke Wilder, a junior from Jackson, “who has put up with me the last three years.”
A thankless task?
“You’re not kidding,” said Joey Couch, laughing.
“It’s been good and memorable and it’s been a challenge, I can tell you that,” said Glaser, who has put up with Couch the last five years. “When Joey came up here I know a lot of people said he couldn’t play. To start 33 games and to be a captain, he’s done a heck of a job. I’m really proud of him.”
Said Curry, “We’re going to miss everything about him.”
“Sometimes it’s been tough, I’m not going to lie about it,” Couch said. “But there would be no better way to go out than to get a win over Tennessee, and get that last little bit you can.”