Ex-Cats

Mark Story: Catching up with the most significant UK football player ever — Babe Parilli

Vito "Babe" Parilli threw 23 touchdown passes in 1950 and 19 more in 1951. No UK quarterback threw more than 11 TD passes between Parilli and Tim Couch (37 TDs in 1997, 38 in 1998).
Vito "Babe" Parilli threw 23 touchdown passes in 1950 and 19 more in 1951. No UK quarterback threw more than 11 TD passes between Parilli and Tim Couch (37 TDs in 1997, 38 in 1998). AP

It is 64 seasons since Vito "Babe" Parilli last wore a Kentucky Wildcats football uniform in a game.

At 85, Parilli, UK's star quarterback during Bear Bryant's golden era of Wildcats football, lives far from the commonwealth in the metropolitan Denver area.

Even so, Parilli still watches the Wildcats play every chance he gets. "My problem is, I don't have that SEC channel," Parilli says of the SEC Network. "But I watch every (UK) game that's on a channel I can get."

In the commonwealth, there will always be mystique connected to the name Babe Parilli. Before or since Parilli, UK has never had a quarterback do the things that "the Kentucky Babe" did during his three years (1949-51) as the Wildcats starter.

In its entire history, Kentucky has played in three major bowls — once each in the Orange, Sugar and Cotton bowls. Parilli, a product of Rochester, Pa., was the UK starting QB in each.

During what became an 11-1 UK season in 1950, Parilli threw 23 touchdown passes and led the Cats past No. 1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. The following year, when Kentucky beat TCU in the Cotton Bowl, Parilli threw 19 TDs.

To put that in perspective, from the time Parilli left UK until Tim Couch threw for 37 touchdowns in Hal Mumme's Air Raid in 1997, no Kentucky QB ever threw for more than 11 TDs (Rick Norton in 1965 and Bill Ransdell in 1984) in a season.

"The Babe was a great quarterback," says Ed Hamilton, 85, who lettered as a UK running back in the three seasons Parilli was the Kentucky starter. "He was a great passer. He was very deceptive with doing the routines, you know, one guy would come by and you don't give him the ball, but wait and give it to the next guy. And the Babe was well-liked by everybody, including his coach."

Bryant trusted Parilli to call the plays on the field.

"I spent a lot of time with Bear Bryant," Parilli says. "Every day, I spent the noon hour with him where we would go over the strategic game plan. I called all the plays. He didn't need to send in plays — he had me programmed to do what he would have done in any situation. Third-and-four, second-and-five, any situation, he had me programmed to think the way he thought."

In high school in Rochester, Pa., Parilli had been a single-wing fullback on a team whose star halfback, Richard "Skippy" Doyle, was getting most of the recruiting attention. Parilli says a rival high school coach tipped Kentucky that the Babe — so nicknamed as a newborn by his godmother — was an undervalued stock.

"I'd been leaning to Indiana," Parilli said. "Then Bear Bryant came up to recruit me."

By choosing Kentucky, Parilli subjected himself to Bryant's — how should we put this? — rigorous preseason training regimens. If your memory of the Bear is the grandfatherly man in the houndstooth hat from his latter years at Alabama, that was not the fierce, physically imposing Bear Bryant of the Kentucky days.

"Everything you've heard, well, it was probably worse," Parilli says. "We'd have three scrimmages a week. One of my teammates swears there were 109 freshmen who started out with us and 12 of us who finished up as seniors. It was tough. He (Bryant) was tough."

In his UK days, Bryant would take his football teams to the Millersburg Military Institute for preseason camp.

"That was really rough. It was crazy, to be honest about it," says Hamilton. "He'd get us up at 6 o'clock every morning. By 6:30, we'd be doing the 'eye opener' — a drill where you were tackling one-on-one, just hitting as hard as we could. It seemed like that (drill) would never stop. Guys were leaving every day, catching the bus back to Lexington, then taking the train back to where they were from."

With Parilli quarterbacking for Bryant, UK went 28-8. Yet, even then, the Cats couldn't beat Tennessee.

In Parilli's three starts against UT and General Robert Neyland's wide-tackle six defense, Kentucky went 0-3 and never scored a touchdown. Particularly galling for Parilli was UK going to Knoxville in 1950 with a 10-0 record only to lose 7-0 in a game played in eight-degree weather with four inches of snow.

"I felt like we were the better team that year," Parilli says. "But it was so cold, all that ice, it was the great equalizer."

After that painful loss, Kentucky was nevertheless invited to the Sugar Bowl to face No. 1 Oklahoma. Parilli threw a TD pass, then set up UK's second score with a throw as the Cats upset the Sooners 13-7 to snap OU's 31-game winning streak.

That still stands as the greatest win in Wildcats football history.

Parilli left UK having finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting in 1950, then third in 1951.

He went on to play 15 years of professional football, before becoming a coach. Parilli moved to Denver in the 1970s when he was hired as a Broncos assistant. He fell in love with Colorado's natural beauty and has made it his residence since.

However, the iconic Kentucky Wildcats quarterback makes it back to Lexington each summer to play in the Children's Charity Classic golf tournament.

"The best thing I ever did in my life," Babe Parilli says, "was come to the University of Kentucky."

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