Jen Smith on UK Football

Kentucky’s longtime equipment manager almost left after a semester and other fun notes that wouldn’t fit

UK equipment manager Tom Kalinowski celebrated UK’s final touchdown during Kentucky’s 41-34 win over Indiana in 2000 at Commonwealth Stadium.
UK equipment manager Tom Kalinowski celebrated UK’s final touchdown during Kentucky’s 41-34 win over Indiana in 2000 at Commonwealth Stadium. LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

As you can imagine, Kentucky equipment manager Tom Kalinowski has 40 year’s worth of stories that couldn’t all fit into a neat, little package in the newspaper.

So below are a few of my favorite tidbits that came from various interviews with and about UK football’s beloved equipment manager.

First, read my story for this Sunday’s Herald-Leader about Kalinowski.

▪  The first time Kalinowski ever laid eyes on the university that he would work for some 40-plus years was when he registered for classes in 1974.

Kalinowski, who is originally from Middletown, Conn., only knew about Kentucky because a friend from Xavier High School, Greg Woods, was recruited by and attended UK.

Kalinowski was a student manager at the high school for baseball, football and basketball and talked with then-UK assistant coach Nick Nicolau, who was recruiting a few players from that area at the time, about coming down and doing something similar at Kentucky.

“At the time, I didn’t even know what league Kentucky was in to be honest with you,” Kalinowski said. “I had a trash can that had all the leagues on it and I was like, ‘Oh, man, they’re playing with Alabama and LSU.’”

As a student assistant, he worked for Buckshot Underwood, whom Kalinowski replaced.

▪  Kalinowski almost left Kentucky after one semester.

“I got homesick after my first semester and was going to transfer,” he explained. “I was going to go back home and be with family.”

He changed his mind while walking across campus to spring football practice and noticed what used to be unofficially called Blanding Beach.

“People were outside getting sun tans and stuff,” he smiled. “That doesn’t happen in Connecticut in April.”

Tom Kalinowski has worked the UK locker room since the 1970s. Looking back brought out some unexpected emotion.

▪  The longtime equipment manager, who has worked for eight head coaches now, refuses to say which of them is his favorite, but he’s still quite partial to a specific team.

“My heart is with the ’77 team,” he said. “Those were my guys.”

That group still has an annual reunion and he’s good friends with most of them.

Some of the seasons run together, but Kalinowski said each team has something special about it. “Even the 0-10-1 team under (Jerry) Claiborne was so special to me,” he said. “They’re all special because they’re all different.”

▪  About 20 years into the job, Kalinowski said he pondered looking for a new line of work, one that would have more regular hours. But a player reunion changed his mind.

“All these kids came back and all of the sudden a little light went on and I was like, ‘Man, maybe I just need to stay because I’m the only one they really know around here,’” he said. “This is the path the good Lord gave me.”

Even though coaches, administrators and staffs have changed, Kalinowski has become a glue guy for players when they return.

“It’s really impressive,” said Allen “Tink” Belcher, UK’s assistant equipment manager. “He can relate to any kid. You see these older guys come in. They all know him. He remembers them.

“Through generations, he knows everybody and they all come in, they all come down to see him. He relates to every generation.”

Tom Kalinowski will mark 40 years as UK's football equipment manager this fall. Players, coaches and staff through the years chipped in to buy him a new ride.

▪  Mark Stoops and Kalinowski have developed a strong friendship, with the head coach noting that he makes life difficult for the equipment manager and his staff sometimes.

“There’s days we’re walking out there and I’m like, ‘No, the field’s too wet, we’re moving it inside,’” Stoops said. “And he probably wants to rip his hair out because he’s got all this stuff to move in there within 15-20 minutes. To do it and get it done on a daily basis, just things like that — keep players happy every day, try to boost them up. It takes talent. TK’s very underappreciated that way.”

One new responsibility Stoops gave Kalinowski when he arrived at UK was managing the practice schedule and manning a loud bullhorn to keep assistant coaches and players on task. The bullhorn and several air horns sit on top of Kalinowski’s desk.

“I was scared to death at first to do that,” he admitted.

Laughing, Stoops finds that hard to believe. “TK took that bullhorn to the next level.”

▪  Thinking the question would lead to an answer about the most difficult losses he’s witnessed, I asked Kalinowski if the job ever broke his heart.

His response was not what I expected.

“Not spending enough time with my family,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. Messes up some stuff, probably not being a good enough husband or a good enough father. That’s the thing that breaks your heart.”

One of Kalinowski’s sons, Ian, is a graduate assistant who helps with recruiting for Kentucky football.

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

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