UK Football

Mark Story: Catching up with the first UK QB to start a game in Commonwealth Stadium, Ernie Lewis

All roads led to Commonwealth Stadium on Sept. 15, 1973, for the first game at the new home of the Wildcats. The stadium was built on what was once part of the UK Experimental Station Farm Grounds. The stadium had a capacity of 57,800 and cost $12 million to build — a tenth of the cost for the latest renovation. Kentucky got a big halftime lead then held off Virginia Tech 31-26.
All roads led to Commonwealth Stadium on Sept. 15, 1973, for the first game at the new home of the Wildcats. The stadium was built on what was once part of the UK Experimental Station Farm Grounds. The stadium had a capacity of 57,800 and cost $12 million to build — a tenth of the cost for the latest renovation. Kentucky got a big halftime lead then held off Virginia Tech 31-26. LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

In University of Kentucky sports lore, Ernie Lewis will always hold a special place.

When Commonwealth Stadium opened on Sept. 15, 1973, with a game against Virginia Tech, Lewis was UK's starting quarterback.

"I guess the two things I remember, one it was hot, probably in the 90s," Lewis said Thursday. "And the other thing I remember, I think it was the only game I ever played where I spent a good bit of the game having to turn around with my back to the line of scrimmage."

Any time a new sports venue opens, there are kinks. When Commonwealth Stadium debuted, Lewis said the play clocks were on the ground, one in each end zone, not up high as you see now. One of them stopped working during the game.

"When we were going toward (the bad play clock), I kept having to turn around and look at the 25-second clock behind us to make sure we were getting the plays off," Lewis said. "So, yeah, that was a bit of an annoyance."

Lewis, who turns 63 Sunday, planned to travel from his home in Louisville to be in Commonwealth on Saturday night for UK's 2015 season opener with Louisiana-Lafayette where Kentucky was unveiling the $120 million worth of renovations it has made to the stadium.

If his mind drifts back to the first half of the first game ever played in Commonwealth Stadium by the first Kentucky quarterback to start there, it will be a pleasant journey.

Three minutes and fifty-six seconds into the game, Lewis threw the first touchdown pass in stadium history, a 13-yard scoring toss to Ray Barga. Later, operating from new UK coach Fran Curci's veer option, Lewis scored TDs on runs of 63 yards and 1 yard.

By halftime, Kentucky led Virginia Tech 31-6.

In what was perhaps a foreshadowing of things to come in Commonwealth Stadium, UK struggled to hold off a furious Virginia Tech rally before prevailing 31-26.

That Lewis, listed as a 5-foot-9, 168-pound junior in 1973, was running the option in the first game in Commonwealth would have stunned all who followed his stellar high school career at Elizabethtown.

Long before fancy passing became an accepted part of football in Kentucky, Lewis was an all-out gunslinger for Coach Vince Hancock's Panthers. In his E-town career, Lewis threw for 7,089 yards and 68 touchdowns. "We'd throw it 25 or 30 times a game back when nobody else was really doing that," he said.

In football, Lewis quarterbacked E-town to the 1969 Class 2A state championship. The following spring, he pitched the Panthers to the 1970 state baseball title.

Media accounts from that time always used the same adjective to describe Lewis — "flashy." His blond hair peaked down below his helmet. Reporters always made note that Lewis, like his idol Joe Namath, wore white cleats.

"Actually, back then you couldn't get colored cleats like you can now," Lewis said. "I wanted to paint mine white, but my coach wouldn't let me. So, finally, I asked him if I could tape my cleats, and he said that was OK. So I always taped my cleats and that made them look white."

When it came time to pick a college in 1971, Lewis was pursued by iconic football coaches.

On a visit to Notre Dame, he found himself summoned to meet Ara Parseghian. "His office was the biggest office I had ever seen and his desk was the biggest desk I had ever seen," Lewis says.

At Alabama, Paul "Bear" Bryant, the former UK head coach, made a point of personally welcoming Lewis to Tuscaloosa.

"I think because he'd been at Kentucky, he was always interested in Kentucky people," Lewis said of Bryant. "So when I got there, I'm stepping off the bus and Coach Bryant came over, slapped me on the back and said 'You must be Ernie.'"

Problem was, "I guess I was off balance (from) getting off that bus, because when he hit me, I went right to the ground," Lewis said. "Coach Bryant said 'Son, if you're going to play here, you're going to have to be a little tougher to get down.'"

Ultimately, Lewis picked home-state Kentucky. "The place where I always wanted to play," he said.

For a passing QB, the UK of those days was a problematic choice. The Kentucky offense was simplistic when John Ray, a former Notre Dame defensive coordinator, was UK head man. "My playbook at E-town was thicker than the one when I got to UK," Lewis said.

When Curci replaced Ray before the 1973 season, he brought a preference for running quarterbacks. Midway through the 1973 season, Mike Fanuzzi supplanted Lewis as UK's starting QB. "Mike was bigger than me and a more natural veer quarterback," Lewis said.

Today, Lewis works as an investment advisor in Louisville. He is married to his high school sweetheart, the former Karol Ashcraft, and the couple have two grown children and three grandchildren.

In 1999, Lewis was inducted into the Dawahare's/KHSAA Hall of Fame. If his UK career did not match the athletics glory of his high school years, Lewis will forever be the answer to a Kentucky Wildcats trivia question:

Name the first UK quarterback to start a game in Commonwealth Stadium?

"I remember how excited we were to play in the new stadium," Lewis said. "This time of year, I still think about that time. I'm so thankful to be the one who had that experience."

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