UK Football

Mark Story: Some of UK's Ring of Honor members say removing names from stadium wall 'a slap in the face'

During a ceremony in 2001, the name of Kentucky great Dermontti Dawson was revealed inside Commonwealth Stadium. The former Ring of Honor is now covered by a flashy ribbon board.
During a ceremony in 2001, the name of Kentucky great Dermontti Dawson was revealed inside Commonwealth Stadium. The former Ring of Honor is now covered by a flashy ribbon board. LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

The new ribbon boards in Commonwealth Stadium give Kentucky's 39-year-old football facility a modern glow.

Some former Wildcats football greats whose names in the Commonwealth Ring of Honor have been covered up by the installation of the new boards do not think the up-to-date look is worth the tradition that has been obscured.

As an early 29th birthday present for his daughter, Jeanna, Mark Higgs flew from his home in South Florida to Nashville, where Jeanna works as a nurse. Together, the ex-University of Kentucky running back and his daughter, a Louisville graduate, drove to Lexington for last Saturday's UK-U of L game.

It was the first time his only child had been in Commonwealth Stadium since she was a little girl and Higgs was starring for Jerry Claiborne (1984-87). Higgs said one reason he wanted to share a UK game in Commonwealth with his daughter now was so Jeanna could see the ex-running back's name in the Ring of Honor along the stadium wall.

Except his name wasn't there.

Said Higgs: "I was in the stadium saying, 'Jeanna, it used to be up there, I swear.'"

Ex-UK All-America offensive tackle Sam Ball (1963-65) knows that feeling.

Before Kentucky's 2011 home opener against Central Michigan, Ball said he realized that some people he knew from his hometown of Henderson were seeing UK play in Commonwealth for the first time.

"I sent some friends up and I said, 'You're not going to believe this, but when you go up there you are going to see my name on the wall,'" Ball said. "They came back and said, 'We didn't see your name anywhere.' It was embarrassing to me."

Before this season, the 45 former UK football players and/or coaches — Shipwreck Kelly to Bear Bryant to Tim Couch — who have had jerseys retired also had their names on the side of Commonwealth Stadium's upper-level wall. The names were displayed in a way that was easy to read.

With the installation of the new ribbon boards that run around the side of the stadium and cover up what once was the Ring of Honor, those names have been transferred to flags flying at the top of the stadium.

Tony Neely, the UK football publicist, said the names that were in the Ring of Honor are also displayed two times each game on the new ribbon boards.

Said Ball: "Unless the wind is really blowing hard, nobody can see those flags. I feel like me and the other 40-plus football players that paid the price to build Kentucky's football program and paid the price to be Wildcats are now just about forgotten. It's almost disrespectful."

Higgs said covering up the Ring of Honor "was like a slap in the face. Now, they're advertising Coke and putting on a laser show. It's terrible, just terrible."

Former Kentucky All-America linebacker Joe Federspiel (1969-71) said the Florida game will be the first one he's attended in Commonwealth this season. In the past, Federspiel said it meant something special to him every time he entered the stadium and saw his name on the wall.

"You see your name, see all the good players who have played at the University of Kentucky, it's a real honor," he said. "What they've done now is sort of a slap in the face to the former players."

Steve Meilinger, a two-time first-team All-America choice and three-time All-SEC selection (1951-53), said "they should have kept our names on the wall. For somebody like myself, who played so long ago, that's really the only way our contributions to the program are remembered."

Not all ex-Cats whose names have been obscured by the Commonwealth ribbon boards are upset.

"I'm sure the university had a good reason," said Rodger Bird, the 1960s-era former Kentucky star running back.

Personally, I like the ribbon boards. They give Commonwealth an up-to-date feel and every one of the current UK players I've asked about them love the old house's new look.

Kentucky also deserved credit in the past for how many of its former players it had recognized inside its stadium. Among the other SEC schools, only one (South Carolina) recognizes more than 10 former players on its stadium structure. Five league schools — Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt — have no ex-players' names on the walls inside their stadiums.

However, the UK Athletics administration needs a far more substantial replacement for the Ring of Honor than what it has now. The star players from the past who have sweat equity invested in Kentucky football deserve a more prominent remembrance than flags at the top of the stadium that no one can see unless a gale-force wind blows up.

Neely, the UK football spokesman, said, "regarding honoring our retired-jersey honorees on game days, in addition to the flag display and ribbon-board display and the listing of the names in the game-day programs, we are studying additional ways to continue to recognize the great players and traditions of Kentucky football."

He declined to say what means of honoring the ex-UK stars at Commonwealth was under consideration.

Said Meilinger: "I'd like to see them put our names up on the stadium again somewhere."

As for this season, the obscuring of the Ring of Honor has created some awkward moments for the former UK stars once recognized there.

Following Louisville's 24-17 win over Kentucky, Higgs went to congratulate Cardinals offensive lineman John Miller, a player the ex-UK back helped coach at Miami's Central High School.

After Miller signed with Louisville, Higgs said he told the lineman that when he played at Kentucky to "'Look up at my name on the stadium when you go up there.'

"After the game, he tells me, 'Coach, I didn't see your name anywhere — and we beat you,'" Higgs said. "It was an awful night, just terrible."

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