UK Football

All-time Kentucky great Vito ‘Babe’ Parilli passes away

Vito “Babe” Parilli, of the Boston Patriots, is shown in 1961. He helped guide Kentucky to three major bowls and a Southeastern Conference championship.
Vito “Babe” Parilli, of the Boston Patriots, is shown in 1961. He helped guide Kentucky to three major bowls and a Southeastern Conference championship. ASSOCIATED PRESS

One of the greatest to wear Kentucky’s blue and white passed away on Saturday after a battle with cancer.

A future Hall of Famer, Vito “Babe” Parilli helped bring national recognition to UK football during the golden era of Bear Bryant.

Parilli, a first-team All-American in 1950 and 1951 and a member of the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame, was 87 when he passed away in Denver. He was fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting as a junior and third as a senior.

“Babe is among the greatest legends of Kentucky athletics history,” UK Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart said in a news release by the school. “He was the quarterback for a golden era of Wildcat football and loved returning to Lexington for the team reunions. We are saddened by his passing and send our sympathies to his family and friends.”

Parilli’s death was announced by the New England Patriots organization, where Parilli played in 94 games from 1961-67. His pro football career also included time with the Green Bay Packers, the Cleveland Browns, the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets. In all, he threw for more than 20,000 yards while playing professionally.

While at Kentucky under Bryant, Parilli took UK football to new heights, including trips to three major bowls (Orange, Sugar and Cotton). The Rochester, Pa., native became well known for running Bryant’s “T” formation that baffled opponents.

With Parilli as his quarterback, Bryant was 28-8 at Kentucky.

In 1949 and 1950, while Parilli was breaking a long list of Southeastern Conference records, the 11-1 Wildcats won the SEC championship.

Parilli lettered three years at quarterback for the Wildcats and set Kentucky records for touchdowns with 50, leading UK to wins over Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and TCU in the Cotton Bowl. He connected on 331 of his 592 passes for 4,351 career yards in three years as quarterback at UK.

After Parilli left Kentucky, the Wildcats did not appear again in a New Year’s Day Bowl until 1999.

“Saddened to hear about the passing of Babe Parilli,” former Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch tweeted Saturday. “He was a friend and inspiration to me. One of the best to ever wear the blue and white!”

After being taken in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Packers in 1952, Parilli played for six years in the NFL, then 10 years in the AFL, culminating in a 1969 Super Bowl championship with the New York Jets as Joe Namath’s backup.

After his playing career, Parilli coached in the NFL, World Football League and Arena Football League.

In addition to the College Football Hall of Fame, Parilli also was selected to the UK Athletics Hall of Fame, the (state of) Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, Helms Foundation Hall of Fame, National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame and the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In an interview with the Herald-Leader in 2015, Parilli said he loved his time playing at UK.

“The best thing I ever did in my life,” said Parilli, who regularly returned to Lexington to play in the Children’s Charity Classic golf tournament, “was come to the University of Kentucky.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Dennis Varney: 859-231-3514, @ExCats