Mark Story

Why abrupt end to Dusty Bonner’s UK QB career never dulled his love for Lexington

Kentucky quarterback Dusty Bonner (15) led the Wildcats to a 31-20 victory over Arkansas in 1999 in the venue then known as Commonwealth Stadium.
Kentucky quarterback Dusty Bonner (15) led the Wildcats to a 31-20 victory over Arkansas in 1999 in the venue then known as Commonwealth Stadium. Associated Press

Back in the day, Dusty Bonner succeeded Kentucky Wildcats icon Tim Couch as UK’s starting quarterback.

Next to that, Bonner’s challenge of helping replace Freddie Maggard as analyst on the “Countdown to Kickoff” show before radio broadcasts of University of Kentucky football games this season pales.

Maggard, also a former UK quarterback, had created a popular niche in local sports media with in-depth analysis of Wildcats football. So when he joined Mark Stoops’ staff as a player development aide this spring, it left a void.

Bonner, Kentucky’s starting QB in 1999, and Jeremy Jarmon, a standout defensive end for UK from 2006-08, will try to fill that when they join host Christi Thomas on the two-hour pregame program beginning Saturday before Coach Mark Stoops and the Cats face Central Michigan in the 2018 season opener.

“You look at what Freddie was doing, he was putting in hours or research and analysis, and bringing that next-level information to the fans,” Bonner said Thursday. “I’m excited about the challenge of trying to pick up on that, bring people the more in-depth stuff.”

Even though Bonner was only at UK three years, few Wildcats athletes ever had more eventful careers.

In 1999, Couch gave up his final season of college eligibility and became the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. Bonner inherited the controls of Hal Mumme’s Air Raid offense.

A 6-foot-2, 208-pound redshirt sophomore, Bonner directed the Cats to four SEC wins, six victories overall and a berth in the Music City Bowl while leading the SEC in passing yards (3,266).

Nevertheless, the following spring Bonner found himself competing with redshirt freshman Jared Lorenzen to retain the UK starting QB job. At the end of spring practice, Mumme announced Bonner had won the battle.

Weeks later, Bonner says Mumme found him after an off-season workout. The coach told the QB he had changed his mind and that Lorenzen would be UK’s starting QB in 2000.

“I was totally blindsided,” Bonner said. “One day, I was a team captain and the starting quarterback. The next day, I was nothing.”

Hal Mumme news conference on Lorenzen and Bonner switch.JPG
In June, 2000, UK Coach Hal Mumme held a news conference to explain why he was naming Jared Lorenzen Kentucky’s starting quarterback after incumbent Dusty Bonner had been declared the starter following spring practice. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

Bonner handled the unanticipated adversity with a class that belied his age. He directed no disparaging words at anyone and transferred to Division II Valdosta State in his hometown in Georgia.

At Valdosta State, Bonner became a two-time winner of the Harlon Hill Trophy, the NCAA Division II Heisman.

Mumme presided over a 2-9 disaster at Kentucky in 2000, then resigned amidst an NCAA investigation of the UK program after that season.

Back to Kentucky

After Bonner’s Valdosta State career ended, he surprised many by returning to Lexington.

Tony Franklin, who had been a UK assistant during Bonner’s playing days, was coaching an indoor football team playing in Rupp Arena. He lured Bonner back to quarterback the Lexington Horsemen.

Dusty Bonner with Tony Franklin.JPG
In 2003, Lexington Horsemen head coach Tony Franklin and quarterback Dusty Bonner visited Johnson Elementary School in Lexington. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

Once back, Bonner never left.

Now, Bonner, who will turn 40 in October, works in medical sales. He and his wife, Danielle, have three children, sons Colton, 8, and Dustin, 6, and daughter Christian, 15 months.

“I love Lexington,” Bonner says. “I like the city. I like that there is farmland all around outside the city. I love horses. I ride horses. Heck, I own a horse (a retired Thoroughbred, Duesenberg). For someone with my interests, there just isn’t anywhere better than Lexington.”

Bonner stays in touch with some former UK teammates, including Nolan DeVaughn, Josh Parrish, Dougie Allen and Matt Layow. Even now, he will visit one, see the framed Kentucky Wildcats jersey that UK presents its players on Senior Day hanging on the wall and feel a pang of longing.

“What would my Senior Day have been like for me and my family if I had been a three-year starting quarterback?” Bonner says. “I have to think that would have been pretty special.”

In 2004, UK invited its ex-quarterback to be Kentucky’s honorary game captain against Georgia. It gave Bonner some closure for how his Kentucky career ended.

“That meant a whole lot to me,” Bonner says.

Bonner is excited about the prospects for the 2018 Kentucky football team he will spend the fall talking about on the radio.

Offensively, Bonner is intrigued by the potential of a Kentucky backfield that will feature star running back Benny Snell and juco transfer Terry Wilson at quarterback.

Terry Wilson can really run,” Bonner says. “Now, you’ve got a guy in there who, if he pulls the ball out from Benny, is a 4.4 (40-yard dash) guy. This offense, I think, can be nasty.”

If you have wondered, in all the years since Mumme blindsided him, Bonner says he has not spoken directly with the coach.

“But we have communicated on Facebook,” Bonner says. “We have not gone in-depth on things, but it’s enough that we both know it’s water under the bridge. I wish him well.”

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory