Mark Story

Green County: Deaton lived the Kentucky dream

The University of Kentucky was coming off two of its best football seasons in recent memory when he inherited the starting quarterback job.

His task was to replace one of the most accomplished and popular quarterbacks in UK history. That and lead the Kentucky football program to a third straight winning season for the first time since the 1950s.

Mike Hartline in 2008?


It was also Mike Deaton in 1978.

"The situation was similar to now," Deaton said last week. "The program had real momentum. I got the quarterback job on a team that had a chance to keep it going, just like Hartline. I sure hope it works out better for him than it did for me."

It is not hard to pinpoint the Golden Age of athletics at Green County High School.

During the enchanted school year of 1975-76, a school of some 600 saw its football team go undefeated until a loss in the semifinals of the Class 2A playoffs.

It watched its boys' basketball team make its first - and still the only - Sweet Sixteen appearance in school history.

The constant in all that winning was four-sport star Mike Deaton.

A prolific throwing quarterback, Deaton was the No. 1 vote-getter on The Courier-Journal's 1975 All-State team.

In basketball, the 6-foot-1 guard made the Kentucky All-Star Team after averaging 26 points as a senior while playing for his dad, Carl.

He was considered a pro prospect as a shortstop and pitcher in baseball. He won a state track championship as a hurdler.

During Deaton's senior year, The Courier-Journal ran a feature on the multi-sport whiz under the headline "A new Thorpe?"

When you are being compared to Jim Thorpe, you are in rarefied air. Decades before Internet recruiting sites, the pursuit of Deaton by colleges was followed in Kentucky with statewide zeal. A Louisville Times columnist devoted a whole column to the subject.

Besides which school he'd pick, people wondered what sport Deaton would choose to pursue in college.

Being a Kentucky boy, "basketball was probably number one in my heart," Deaton says.

There was little question which school was first in his affections.

Deaton's maternal grandfather, Emmett Renfroe, was the kind of UK basketball fan who kept a score book on each Cats game off of Cawood Ledford's radio call.

As a little boy, Deaton promised Renfroe that one day he would hear his grandson play hoops for the Kentucky Wildcats.

"Joe Hall came and watched me," Deaton recalls of the then-Kentucky basketball coach. "I don't think he was quite as interested in me as I was in him."

So if Deaton were going to pick Kentucky, it would have to be for football. The UK coach at the time, Fran Curci, left no doubt about the level of his interest.

In Deaton's senior football season, UK scouts saw him play nine times. Once, Curci flew into Greensburg via helicopter and landed in a lot across from Deaton's home.

"That was done to impress," Curci recalled on Friday. "It was part of putting on a show for a recruit."

It worked.

"Everyone in the neighborhood was buzzing about Coach Curci landing in that helicopter," Carl Deaton says.

With schools such as Tennessee, Alabama, Vanderbilt, Indiana and Louisville also recruiting Deaton for football, Curci pulled out all the stops for UK.

He asked a fairly notable Kentucky sports figure to make a call on Greensburg.

Carl Deaton has vivid memories of the day Adolph Rupp came to Green County High.

"Coach Rupp was sitting around my office, telling stories. It was great," he says. "All at once, he just fell over. I thought he was dead."

A nurse who happened to be at the school placed sugar beneath the tongue of the diabetic coaching titan.

"Coach Rupp popped right up," Carl Deaton says.

After Adolph Rupp has passed out on the floor while wooing you, it's hard for a Kentucky boy to say no to his state university.

Says Curci: "At that time, Mike Deaton was the best quarterback in the state, and everybody was recruiting him. But he was a Kentucky kid; his heart belonged to Kentucky. UK was where he belonged." When it recruited him, UK told Deaton it envisioned him in a pass-oriented attack.

Deaton arrived in Lexington in time to become mostly a spectator for the best non-Bear Bryant period in Kentucky football history.

In 1976, UK went 9-3 and won the Peach Bowl. The next season, the Cats were 10-1 but ineligible for a bowl because of NCAA probation.

Those 19 wins were built around power running, with the 6-foot-6 Derrick Ramsey at quarterback in a full-house backfield.

"We had a tight end playing quarterback," Curci said. "Mike didn't have much chance those first two years behind Derrick."

Deaton did, however, have a shining moment in 1977 in one of the most satisfying wins in Kentucky football history.

With only Tennessee left on the '77 schedule, UK needed a win to finish undefeated (6-0) in the Southeastern Conference and 10-1 overall.

However, Curci's team was decimated by injuries, with six starters sidelined. Ramsey was going to play, but a badly injured shoulder meant he literally could not pass.

Tennessee was about to spoil Kentucky's party, leading 17-14 in the fourth quarter in Commonwealth Stadium. UK had the ball at its own 20-yard line with around 11 minutes left in the game. The Kentucky brain trust sent Deaton into the game cold, specifically to complete a long pass.

Which never works. This time, it did.

The sophomore quarterback connected with Felix Wilson on a 36-yard pass that changed the momentum of the game.

Ramsey came back and led a (pass-free) game-winning touchdown drive.

UK had its 10-1 season.

"I guess that is my calling card, that one play," Deaton says. "Even with what happened the next year, I still have that one big play."

Just as current UK quarterback Mike Hartline faces the challenge of replacing Andre Woodson, Deaton had the task of succeeding Ramsey while keeping Kentucky's winning ways alive.

It didn't go well.

Kentucky started 1978 1-0-1 by tying South Carolina on the road, then besting Baylor at home. However, the Cats failed to score a touchdown in their next 10 quarters.

At halftime of the season's fifth game, Curci pulled Deaton in favor of true freshman Larry McCrimmon. That day, UK rallied to beat Mississippi.

The next week, Deaton played in relief of McCrimmon against Louisiana State. As he tried to throw a long pass, Deaton says, he heard something in his shoulder pop.

Deaton never played for Kentucky again.

Rather than a third consecutive winning year, UK limped home 4-6-1. To this day, Kentucky still hasn't had three straight winning seasons since 1954-56.

"He was a good kid," Curci says of Deaton. "But he just seemed anxious, a little off kilter that whole year."

In summer workouts before the '78 season, Deaton says, he developed a blister on his throwing hand. To compensate, he altered his throwing motion to protect the blister.

"That's how I hurt my shoulder," Deaton says. "By the time the season started, I knew I wasn't right. But you're getting a chance to be the starting quarterback at Kentucky; I didn't want to let that go."

The guy whom Adolph Rupp traveled to Greensburg to woo to UK finished his college degree requirements at Western Kentucky University. After his playing career ended, Deaton went into the family business. His parents, Carl and Roselyn Deaton, were both high school teachers and coaches.

Mike carved out a successful basketball coaching résumé of his own, leading Corbin High to the Boys' Sweet Sixteen in 1996 and 2000.

Gray-haired but still looking as fit as an athlete at 51, Deaton has left coaching and is now principal of Campbellsville High School.

That puts him close to his parents in Green County and makes it easy to watch his son, Ross, play quarterback for Campbellsville University.

With the hindsight of 30-plus years, Mike Deaton allows that he occasionally wonders whether he picked the right sport.

"If I could do it all over again, maybe I'd have gone somewhere on a basketball scholarship," Deaton says. "Vanderbilt was after me hard. I really like Nashville."

Still, Mike Deaton was a Kentucky kid who lived the lifelong dream of being a UK athlete.

"I think I was in the right place, but it was at the wrong time," Deaton says. "The offense Coach Curci had had success with was run-oriented. But I was a passer. It just wasn't a great fit.

"Still, I was a small-town Kentucky boy who became a starting quarterback at the University of Kentucky. In this state, there are worse things you can say about your career."