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Original Issue

New coat of paint on the old Kentucky home

The University of Kentucky football team has known some miserable afternoons in recent years, but successive upset victories over Mississippi and Auburn herald happier days

An upset in college football usually occurs by accident—when a passer throws to a different-colored jersey, maybe, or when a placement kicker waves to his mother in the box seats and then puts his toe squarely into the knuckles of a teammate holding the ball. There are no freak explanations, however, for the two biggest upsets of 1964, both of which are still smoldering in the Southeastern Conference, where the University of Kentucky has suddenly learned to enjoy a sport other than basketball again. Two weeks ago Kentucky upset Ole Miss 27-21, and last Saturday night in Lexington the Wildcats upset Auburn 20-0. Both scores continue to look like typographical errors, but the simple explanation is that Kentucky quite obviously has one of the very best teams in the U.S.

Followers of Mississippi may care to argue that the powerful Rebels had an off day against Kentucky, a team they are accustomed to beating without much trouble. And Auburn rooters will be quick to point out that All-America Quarterback Jimmy Sidle was hampered by an injured shoulder and that, moreover, the team was unsettled by the news that earlier in the week its mascot, War Eagle IV, was found shot—the victim of a trigger-happy hunter in the woods near Birmingham. But even on a good day Ole Miss would have had trouble overcoming the 415 yards of total offense Kentucky rolled up in Jackson. And as for Jimmy Sidle, he could have had four good arms and War Eagle sitting on his shoulder and not done much better.

For Kentucky, the heroes were Halfback Rodger Bird, End Rick Kestner and Quarterback Rick Norton, all juniors, all native-grown and all hardened and viciously disciplined under the Bear Bryant type of coaching that is practiced by Charley Bradshaw. On defense the same three Wildcats were just as tough. Kestner made repeated stops of the Auburn power sweeps that netted Sidle 1,006 yards last year. Bird and Norton came up from their defensive secondary positions to help contain Sidle's running partner, Tucker Frederickson, who fumbled twice from the impact of Kentucky's swarming tacklers. Sidle, despite his painful shoulder injury, still showed flashes of brilliance. Running outside, sending Frederickson inside, and connecting on nine passes, he mustered drives of 52, 53, 47 and 65 yards only to see each one perish short of Kentucky's goal line.

The worst moment of all for Auburn—and the decisive play of the evening—came early in the third quarter. With Kentucky holding only a 7-0 lead, Sidle had his team moving. Twice he passed to Frederickson, for 16 and 12 yards. Then he ran a sweep for 35 yards to give Auburn a first down on the Wildcats' seven. It looked as if the momentum had shifted.

But Frederickson made only four yards in two plays, and on third down Sidle lost two, fumbling the snap. Then came disaster. On fourth down, as Sidle stepped back to pass, Rick Kestner crashed into him. Falling, Sidle flipped a feeble afterthought pass into the flat—and there was Kentucky's Rodger Bird. Or rather there went Rodger Bird. He raced 95 yards to the Kentucky touchdown that put Auburn 14 points behind. Practically speaking, the game was over.

"That was the finest game we've played since I've been here," said a happy Charley Bradshaw after the game. But then Bradshaw has not had many "fine" games since he has been at Kentucky. His two-year record at the start of this season was 6-11-3, and it did not seem likely that 1964 would see much of an improvement. Bradshaw believes the reason for the change lies somewhere between the dedicated attitude of the players and their ability to execute the game's fundamentals.

"We're getting tremendous leadership on the field," he says. "But we've also simplified our offense. We do the same things over and over and hope to eliminate mistakes by learning to do a few things well."

There are just three seniors on the squad, the last members of his famous, or infamous, "survival school" of 1962, a rugged preseason period that saw half the team quit (SI, Oct. 8. 1962). Bradshaw's penchant for superb physical conditioning is so great that last year Kentucky got caught training when it should not have been, and the NCAA imposed a probation on the Wildcats that will prevent them from playing in any postseason game. With most of its strong opponents already taken care of—LSU is the only power left—Kentucky almost certainly would be a strong bowl candidate if it were eligible. For long-suffering Kentucky, however, winning seems to be its own reward.

"Just like Coach Bradshaw has been saying since he got here," said Rick Kestner after the Auburn game, "it just takes a little extra effort to go first-class. That's what we've been giving." Said Rodger Bird: "Sir, we're not playing super football. We're just playing like we knew we could."

Defeated Auburn, a talented, experienced preseason SEC favorite, is in good position to know why Kentucky football has now fully recovered.

"For one thing," said Jimmy Sidle, "Rick Norton is the best passer in the Southeastern Conference."

And Auburn Coach Shug Jordan added, "Kentucky is very quick, very fast and extremely dangerous because Norton and Bird and Kestner are quite obviously great."

Just as obviously, with virtually an all-junior squad, Kentucky will be a team to watch for some time.