As fall turned to winter in 1958, the state of Kentucky stood poised on the verge of a sports breakthrough.
In an era when there were only seven other college football postseason bowl games, the commonwealth was about to add an eighth.
Circumstances had broken just right to give the first Bluegrass Bowl — to be played at the Fairgrounds Stadium in Louisville — a dream matchup.
Bowl organizers believed a matchup of UK vs. the Cats’ ex-coach would sell out. That would get the Bluegrass Bowl off to a crackling start.
Only one problem. The players on Kentucky’s team chose not to accept the bowl’s bid.
In 2019, with Lynn Bowden supplying UK’s latest version of “wide receiver playing quarterback” magic, Mark Stoops and troops (4-4) are battling to achieve bowl eligibility for a fourth straight season.
The record books show that the University of Kentucky has played in 18 all-time bowl games.
UK could have played in 21 all-time bowls, however, if Wildcats players on three different teams had not refused bids.
Saying no to bowls
After Kentucky finished its 1958 season with a 5-4-1 record by defeating Tennessee 6-2 in Knoxville, Wildcats coach Blanton Collier put the question of accepting a bid to the inaugural Bluegrass Bowl up to a vote of UK football’s 30 varsity letter winners.
“That was always (his) way,” said Kay Collier McLaughlin, one of Collier’s daughters, recently. “He believed in leaving (bowl acceptance) up to the players.”
Collier very much wanted his players to accept the Bluegrass Bowl bid.
So did Bill Henry, executive director of the Kentucky State Fair and Exposition Center. Henry had driven east from Louisville to be there as the UK players voted on whether or not to play in the new bowl his facility would be hosting.
The Kentucky letter winners proved impervious to any pressure to say yes. By what was reported as an 18-12 vote, the Wildcats turned down the chance to extend their season.
Collier announced the decision to the audience at UK’s team banquet. The Kentucky coach told attendees he was disappointed.
“My motivations were, perhaps, a bit selfish,” Collier subsequently told the Lexington Herald. “The extra three weeks of practice, I thought it would have helped our next year’s team a lot. We would have accomplished many things, especially with the freshmen and sophomores.”
It should not have been a huge surprise that the 1958 Kentucky football team turned down a bowl chance.
The 1953 and ‘54 UK teams had also done so.
After it overcame an 0-2 start to finish 7-2-1, the 1953 UK team — Bryant’s last as Kentucky coach — quickly voted to accept bids from the Cotton or Sugar Bowls if offered. They did not vote on the less prestigious Gator Bowl.
“General opinion is that Kentucky would not accept a Gator Bowl bid,” Lexington Herald sportswriter Ed Ashford wrote on Nov. 26, 1953.
Bryant told the newspaper that the decision on whether to accept any bowl bid would be “up to the players.”
When neither the Cotton nor Sugar Bowls invited UK, the ‘53 Cats were called into a team meeting. There, they voted thumbs down on the Gator Bowl.
The following season, Collier’s first as Kentucky head man, UK ended up in a similar position. The 1954 Cats also started 0-2, then won seven of their final eight.
In spite of Kentucky’s hot finish, the biggest bowls again passed on UK. With yet another opportunity presented to go to Jacksonville, Fla., to play in the Gator Bowl, the Wildcats players again voted no.
Collier McLaughlin said one of the team captains would later apologize to Blanton Collier for the team’s decision.
“He said the players didn’t want to disrupt their Christmas plans,” Collier McLaughlin said. “Can you even imagine that happening now?”
Damage to UK football?
During the Bryant era at UK, Kentucky played in four bowls. The Bear’s pre-bowl practices were infamously grueling.
Even after the Bear bolted the Bluegrass, one wonders if the impact of his demanding postseason practice regimen lingered with Kentucky players. Later Wildcats teams might have associated bowl trips with harsh pregame training and decided it was not worth it for anything but the major bowls.
There is something wholesome about football players not wanting to disrupt the sanctity of Christmas for bowl practices.
Yet, from the view of history, those long ago player votes to turn down bowl trips produced a negative impact on Kentucky football.
Having three more bowl games on the Wildcats’ all-time football résumé would be a boost in perception of a program that, across much of its history, has tended to need boosting.
The Bluegrass Bowl
Kentucky was not the only team that said no to the 1958 Bluegrass Bowl. Bryant and Alabama (5-4-1) turned it down, too.
So on Dec. 13, 1958, No. 19 Oklahoma State (7-3) tangled with Florida State (7-3) in the inaugural edition of the Louisville bowl game.
The matchup was broadcast nationally by ABC with a 100-mile television blackout around Louisville.
In spite of that, a paid crowd of only 3,152 braved a frigid afternoon where the temperature at kickoff was 20 degrees.
On a frozen playing field, Oklahoma State defeated FSU 15-6.
Bowl organizers later announced the 1958 Bluegrass Bowl produced an income of $18,132.
They never held a second one.