When Bill Curry makes his less-than-triumphant return to
Tuscaloosa this week, visiting for the first time since he
jilted Alabama in 1990 to take the coaching job at Kentucky,
he'll be the object of considerable scorn. And that will be just
from fans of the Wildcats, who have watched him do what is
arguably the worst coaching job in the history of SEC football.
Heaven knows how the Alabama fans will greet him, but gloating
will be heavily favored over pity. We told you so, the 'Bama
fans can say with considerable justification to Kentuckians. We
told you that he's a decent man but a horrible coach.
Long before the Wildcats' 65-0 loss to top-ranked Florida last
Saturday--the 15th time in 71 games under Curry that Kentucky
has given up at least 40 points--his ineptitude in the Bluegrass
State was obvious to just about everyone except Kentucky
athletic director C.M. Newton, who is closer personally to Curry
than to Rick Pitino, the basketball coach who led the Wildcats
to the 1996 NCAA championship. In six-plus seasons under Curry,
the Wildcats have never had a winning record. Their best showing
was a 6-6 mark in 1993, but that was followed by the dismal 1-10
finish of 1994 and a 4-7 record last year. To understand how bad
things are in Lexington, here's all you need to know: Kentucky
has lost to Vanderbilt five years in a row.
Curry's predecessor, Jerry Claiborne, went winless in 1982, his
first season after replacing Fran Curci--whose recruiting
violations had resulted in NCAA probation in 1977--but that was
a cleanup year in which Claiborne's main goal was to get the
program back on track. After that, every one of Claiborne's
teams won at least five games, and two squads went to bowl
games. Yet Wildcats fans grew increasingly unhappy with
Claiborne, who they felt was too old and too unimaginative to
take the Wildcats to the next level. Well, Curry has taken the
program to the next level, but it's a level down. As one
Kentucky wag recently put it, "Maybe it's time to do a book
titled Jerry Claiborne: The Golden Years."
It looked as if Curry would get the ax last year. Newton was on
the fence the week of the season-ending Tennessee game. Would
four wins constitute the demonstrable improvement that Newton
had demanded before the season? But Kentucky played its best
game of the year against the Vols, losing by a respectable
34-31, and that apparently tipped the scales in Curry's favor.
Then, when high school phenom quarterback Tim Couch announced in
December that he would attend Kentucky, the fans finally had a
glimmer of hope.
Instead of installing a pro-style offense for Couch, however,
Curry and his offensive coordinator, Elliot Uzelac (who does
what he wants without interference from Curry), went with an
option attack and kept junior quarterback Billy Jack Haskins as
the starter. In the Wildcats' season opener, they were drilled
by Louisville 38-14 at home. The next week they went to
Cincinnati and lost 24-3. In neither game did Couch play until
the team was hopelessly behind, and even then he had to run the
After the Cincinnati game, former Green Bay Packers star Paul
Hornung said on his nationally syndicated TV show, "If I see Tim
Couch run the option one more time, I'm going to throw up." This
was noteworthy because Hornung, who won the 1956 Heisman Trophy
at Notre Dame and has known Curry since they played together in
Green Bay, has been one of Curry's staunchest supporters. "I
love Billy," Hornung added, "but they've got to put in an
offense for this kid. I thought they were going to spread it out."
Curry became a lame duck following the loss to Cincinnati. The
only question was whether he would be fired immediately or after
the season. Newton vowed that nothing would happen until after
the final game. "I'm not the general manager of an NFL team," he
said. Nevertheless, Newton is running a multimillion-dollar
business. This year Kentucky raised football ticket prices to
$20 per game, which only deepened the unhappiness among fans.
Last Thursday, Nashville Tennesseean columnist Larry Woody, who
knew Newton when he was Vanderbilt's basketball coach in the
'80s, quoted the athletic director as saying his decision to
retain Curry this year looked liked a mistake "based on the
first two games and looking at where the program is." Newton
immediately went into damage-control mode. "This came out of a
casual conversation I had with Larry during the open week after
the Cincinnati game," he said. "What I told Larry was that if
you look at it on the basis of two games, then it was a bad
decision. But--and this is what was left out--you can't look at
it after two games. We still have a whole season to play.
Everybody's jumping the gun here."
Not really. Newton can't be naive enough to believe that Curry
will turn the program around. The Wildcats are 1-3 after the
Florida debacle. Their remaining seven games include three near
certain losses--to Alabama, LSU and Tennessee--and there's
little reason to believe Kentucky can beat Vanderbilt, much less
South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi State.
Newton reiterated last Thursday that "it's unthinkable to change
coaches in the middle of the season on the college level." Well,
again, not really. In 1992 Arkansas canned Jack Crowe after one
game, a loss to The Citadel. In addition, Kentucky's fellow SEC
members Florida, Tennessee and Ole Miss have made in-season
changes in the past.
Newton could justify making a change before the season's end on
the grounds that Kentucky's recent floundering is unprecedented.
Since the SEC was founded in 1933, no other coach in the
conference has remained on the job after five consecutive
nonwinning seasons. This will be Curry's seventh--after going
26-10 in three years at Alabama and 31-43-4 in seven seasons at
Curry gave the ballyhooed Couch (SI, Nov. 20, 1995) his first
start against Florida, which made no sense. The kid with the
bazooka arm wasn't deemed ready to start against Louisville,
Cincinnati or Indiana, but suddenly he was thrown in against the
nation's top-ranked team, on the road? Couch completed 6 of his
18 pass attempts, for a paltry 13 yards, but he was seldom
allowed to throw downfield. A lot of Wildcats fans are worried
that Couch will become so disillusioned that he will transfer
after the season rather than wait and see who will be the new
Kentucky coach. Tennessee, his second-choice last year, may well
be looking for a replacement for Peyton Manning, the predicted
No. 1 pick in the 1997 NFL draft.
Right now most of the talk-show speculation about Curry's
eventual successor centers on Howard Schnellenberger. Although
he is 62, Schnellenberger thinks he has another 10 years of
coaching in him. "I've never felt better," he says. "I'm rarin'
to go. I don't want to finish up my career with that situation
Yet "that situation"--Schnellenberger resigned under pressure
after the Sooners went 5-5-1 last year in his first season--was
no uglier than the one that exists in Lexington. When Curry
appears in Tuscaloosa, he will be cooked like so much
tailgate-party barbecue, by fans of both teams. The sad thing
is, he deserves it.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Curry (left) finally started Couch against Florida, but he sent in Haskins (below) for a few downs to absorb some of the beating. [Bill Curry]
COLOR PHOTO: BEN VAN HOOK [See caption above--Billy Jack Haskins being sacked bydefenseman]