Mark Story

Babe Parilli has strong claim as greatest UK football player ever

Kentucky Coach Bear Bryant, in tie, celebrated UK’s win over TCU in the 1952 Cotton Bowl with quarterback Babe Parilli, left, running back Ed Hamilton and end Emero Clark. Hamilton ran for a touchdown and Parilli threw two TDs to Clark in UK’s 20-7 win.
Kentucky Coach Bear Bryant, in tie, celebrated UK’s win over TCU in the 1952 Cotton Bowl with quarterback Babe Parilli, left, running back Ed Hamilton and end Emero Clark. Hamilton ran for a touchdown and Parilli threw two TDs to Clark in UK’s 20-7 win. Associated Press

On the day of Kentucky’s football season opener with Xavier in 1948, a member of Adolph Rupp’s basketball squad found himself denied entry to Stoll Field.

It seems when pictures were taken for UK student IDs, Joe Hall had blown it off and instead gone home to Cynthiana to watch a high school football game.

Now, the UK sophomore was paying the piper.

“I didn’t have a student ID, and they wouldn’t let me in the football game without it,” Hall recalled Monday. “I kept saying, ‘But I’m on the basketball team.’ And they didn’t care.”

As Hall stewed, he watched another UK student walk to the gate, identify himself as a freshman football player, and find himself in the same predicament. No ID, no entry to the game.

Former Kentucky football great Vito “Babe” Parilli, right, shared a laugh with ex-UK men’s basketball coach Joe B. Hall, center, and then-Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear in 2009 at the Governor’s Cup luncheon. Jonathan Palmer

That is how Joe B. Hall — who would one day win an NCAA championship for UK as its men’s basketball coach, you might recall — met Vito “Babe” Parilli, the quarterback who would lead Kentucky to its greatest football moments.

“I didn’t know him, and he didn’t know me,” Hall says of Parilli. “But we were both in the same situation, trying to talk our way into the football game.”

Given the position he played and the achievements of the teams he led, Parilli — who died Saturday at age 87 — has a strong claim as Kentucky’s most significant football player ever.

Kentucky quarterback Vito "Babe" Parilli led the Wildcats to a 28-8 overall record from 1949-51. - Associated Press

In its entire history, the University of Kentucky has played in three major bowl games — one Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Cotton Bowl each.

Parilli was the starting quarterback in all three.

The 1951 Sugar Bowl (played at the end of the 1950 season) saw Parilli and Kentucky upset No. 1 Oklahoma 13-7, snapping a 31-game winning streak by the Sooners. To this day, it remains the greatest win in UK football history.

While leading Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s 1950 Wildcats to an 11-1 record, Parilli threw for 23 touchdowns. The following season, which ended with UK beating Texas Christian in the Cotton Bowl, Parilli threw for 19 more scores.

To put that in perspective, consider: From Parilli’s final season in 1951 until Tim Couch threw 37 TDs in Hal Mumme’s Air Raid in 1997, no Kentucky quarterback ever passed for more than 11 scores in a season.

Kentucky quarterback Babe Parilli exited the plane at Lexington's Blue Grass Field four days after UK upset No. 1 Oklahoma in the 1951 Sugar Bowl. - Herald-Leader file photo

In the three years that “The Kentucky Babe” started at QB, UK went 28-8. Parilli finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting in 1950 and third in 1951.

Along with Bryant and tackle Bob Gain, the 1950 Outland Trophy winner, Parilli was the face of the golden age of University of Kentucky football.

Yet as he explained to me in a 2015 phone interview, Parilli almost did not come to Kentucky.

In high school in Rochester, Pa., Parilli was a single-wing fullback on a team whose star halfback, Richard “Skippy” Doyle, was the darling of college recruiters.

Parilli said a rival high school coach tipped Kentucky that the Babe — nicknamed as a newborn by his grandmother — was actually the player worth getting.

“I’d been leaning to Indiana,” Parilli recalled. “Then Bear Bryant came up to recruit me.”

Parilli had one lifelong regret about his UK career. In three career starts against Tennessee Coach Robert Neyland’s wide-tackle-six defense, Parilli went 0-3 and never even led Kentucky to a touchdown.

The one that hurt the worst was in 1950. UK went to Knoxville with a 10-0 record only to suffer a 7-0 defeat in a game played in 8-degree weather with 4 inches of snow.

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

Kentucky quarterback Babe Parilli reading "Football Digest" in January 1951. Parilli threw for 23 touchdowns in 1950 and 19 more in 1951. No Kentucky quarterback exceeded those numbers until Tim Couch threw 37 TDs in 1997. - Herald-Leader file photo

After he left Kentucky, Parilli went on to play professional football until he was 40. “In all that time, no one ever hit me as hard as Bob Gain used to in (UK) practices,” he said.

Once his playing days ended, Parilli worked as a coach in pro football. During a stint as a Denver Broncos assistant in the 1970s, he fell in love with the natural beauty of Colorado and made that his home.

Parilli never lost connection with Lexington, however, returning for reunions of Bryant-era UK football players as well as to play in the Children’s Charity Golf Classic.

In Kentucky, the name “Babe Parilli” will forever evoke the fleeting era when UK walked with college football’s giants.

For Joe B. Hall, the name also recalls the time when two future Wildcats sports legends found themselves locked out of Stoll Field over the lack of valid students IDs.

“We walked all the way around the stadium,” Hall recalled. “Nobody would let us in. Finally, over on Rose Street, a guy let us in the press entrance.”