Jim Mashek column: George Blanda, Art Still and Sonny Collins redux … Unbeaten UK ranked #11 in AP poll


I missed it.

I missed it, Saturday night, except for a few minutes in the car, coming back from Western Kentucky’s football game in the early moments of the fourth quarter, tuning in to WWL-AM out of New Orleans.

The LSU Tigers’ broadcast of the LSU-Kentucky game, another game in Ed Orgeron’s march to irrelevance. (Yet again.)

Kentucky mopped the floor with the Tigahs, opening a 35-7 lead before LSU scored a couple cosmetic touchdowns to make the final score UK 42, Orgeron and LSU 21 somewhat respectable.

LSU is 3-3, unacceptable on The Bayou.

Kentucky, meanwhile, is 6-0, on the precipice of The Associated Press Top 10, and the Wildcats will be playing the No. 1-ranked team in the country on Saturday.

Not the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Not this time.

The Georgia Bulldogs, coached by Kirby Smart, a Nick Saban disciple looking for his first victory, lifetime, over the Nicktator, are the nation’s No. 1-ranked college football team.

You gotta love what Mark Stoops has done with the 11th-ranked Wildcats’ football program.

Recruit the region, but concentrate on the Commonwealth. Stress accountability. Play though the hype. Embrace the underdog role. Win football games.

It brings back memories of my undergraduate days at Western Kentucky University, when the Kentucky Wildcats were winning a lot of games under Fran Curci, but the cloud of NCAA probation seemed to put an asterisk on their accomplishments.

In 1977, for instance, the Wildcats went 10-1, but NCAA sanctions prevented UK from playing in a bowl game.

Kentucky had All-American players, like defensive end Art Still and offensive tackle Warren Bryant and All-SEC standouts such as linebacker Jim Kovach — Kovach was known as “Doc” in his days with the New Orleans Saints, because he somehow earned a medical degree while playing pro football — and the always colorful Sonny Collins, who walked it like he talked it.

And trust me, Sonny Collins could talk some stuff, y’all. Plus, he had the world’s most beautiful ‘fro this side of MLB’s Bake McBride and the NBA’s Artis Gilmore.

The ‘Cats had a quarterback, Derrick Ramsey, who became an NFL tight end with the Oakland Raiders. They drew big crowds to Commonwealth Stadium. But success was short lived, even though Kentucky went to a few bowl games under the late Jerry Claiborne, the ‘Cats coach from 1982-89.

After that, a whole lotta nuthin’.

The ranks of Kentucky coaches included Bill Curry, Hal’s Mummy — uh, excuse me, Hal Mumme — Guy Morriss (a great guy, and former Patriots center, but he left UK for BAYLOR, believe it or not), Rich Brooks, and Joker Phillips.

(Insert own joke here.)

You think back to the black-and-white era of yesteryear, before color TV, the Interstate system and, yes, Twitter and Facebook, to Bear Bryant’s eight years in Lexington, and George Blanda, Babe Parilli, Howard Schnellenberger and “The Toe,” defensive tackle/place kicker Lou Michaels …

(Yeah, kids, specialists didn’t come along in football until after Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers and the ’60s. As you can see, from the photo below, these guys DIDN’T EVEN WEAR FACEMASKS.)

Well, as the Herald-Leader of Lexington’s splendid sports columnist, John Clay, pointed out this morning:

“Call it Cat-tober. A historic Kentucky football 20-13 home win over Florida on Oct. 2. A convincing Kentucky football 42-21 spanking of LSU on Oct. 9. So far, Mark Stoops’ troops are 2-for-2 in what was projected to be the toughest stretch of the Wildcats’ 2021 season.

“Dare we think they could go 3-for-3? Call this Saturday’s game in Athens a showdown. Who’d have thunk it? Georgia is Georgia, only better. The Bulldogs are 6-0 overall, 4-0 in the SEC and the No. 1 team in the land. Meanwhile, Kentucky is 6-0 for the first time since 1950; 4-0 in the SEC for the first time since 1977.

“Saturday’s scenario: Unbeaten vs. Unbeaten, between the hedges, 3:30 p.m. with CBS’ Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson in the broadcast booth.

“It doesn’t get much bigger. Or better.”

No, John, it doesn’t.

Never mind that before the Wildcats’ impressive thumping of LSU, that Stoops’ bunch was rated a 24.5-point underdog against the Bulldogs.

Never mind that they’re playing between the hedges, in Fred G. Sanford Stadium, (OK, that part, I made up) and Kirby Smart has built his program based on the Alabama model, and he actually seems to be a prince of a guy.

Unlike the Nicktator.

We all know it’s all about hoops in Kentucky. In Lexington, in Louisville, over in Bowling Green and Owensboro, all the way from Paintsville to Paducah. When’s Midnight Madness? Can Louisville recover? Why can’t Ashley Judd come to all the UK games at Rupp?

Well, John Calipari’s ‘Cats went 9-16 last season, 8-9 in the SEC, while missing the NCAA Tournament. I’m starting to worry about his one-and-done strategy, anyway. Calipari seems a lot more enthused about making the rounds at NBA Draft Night than he does knocking off Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Auburn.

I get it, the big picture applies.

And for the moment, the big picture in college football includes the Kentucky Wildcats.

They get their shot at the ultimate upset. No different than Arkansas beating Texas A&M at Jerryworld, the ostentatious home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, or the Aggies slipping past No. 1-ranked Alabama 41-38 two weeks later.

Look, I love college football, covered it in Texas, in Mississippi, in …

(Well, not during my tenure at the morning newspaper in Baton Rouge, in the ’80s, when the paper might as well have been printed in purple-and-gold ink. The “executive sports editor,” who never met a free press-box hot dog that he didn’t like, let me cover the Saints and LSU baseball, and it turned out to be a helluva beat. But the only time I ever stepped foot inside Tiger Stadium, in SIX YEARS in Red Stick, was for the National Sports Festival opening ceremonies in 1985 …)

College football is NOT a meritocracy. It is largely a sport of the haves and the have nots, and the haves, such as Notre Dame, Alabama and Ohio State, have no interest in sharing the wealth. The coaches that recruit the best athletes usually win, and the programs built for the long haul have the upper hand in just about everything.

So embrace it, Kentucky. Take a shot at immortality. You’re basically playing with house money. See what you can do in Athens.

Gonna be a fun football weekend in the Commonwealth, that’s for sure.