Predictions Easier To Make Than Fulfill
Pivotal Recruiting Season Lies Ahead
Before the 1986 football season began, members of the media were polled by The Cats' Pause for their predictions about how they thought the University of Kentucky football team would fare this season.
The guesses, and that's all they are: guesses, were from anywhere around 4-7 to 9-2. That's a pretty wide range for a sports team. After all, there's usually not much diversification between media members and coaches when they're trying to figure out how a team will perform. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. No one's going to go out on a limb one way or the other.
QHHI n i
Mel Holbrook Cats' Pause Columnist
I did. I was one of the few who said that I thought Kentucky would surprise a lot of people and pull off a winning record, possibly a lot better than most media and coaching "experts" thought.
But as you all know, Kentucky went 5-5-1 in 1986. It was the school's second straight disappointing season. UK went 5-6 the previous campaign.
So where does that leave the few unfortunates who boldly thought that Kentucky would have a great season and go to its third bowl game in four years? With egg on their faces? In a pickle? Up a creek without a paddle? Between a rock and a hard place? Going the wrong way up a one-way street?
All these, and more.
'86 Was Rough Season For Optimists
My analysis on how I thought UK would do was wrong, but it's extremely difficult to predict things such as this. Human nature predicates that anything can happen on a given day, or in a given football game.
Some say it's much easier, and more realistic, to write or say that the Wildcats are going to traditionally lose year in and year out. It's certainly much safer. That way. if you're wrong, at least it's a pleasant surprise.
To say the least, it's been a rough, rough season for optimists around UK's puzzling pigskin program.
Before the season, there was plenty of room for high expectations.
Sure, UK was coming off a disappointing season, one during which coach Jerry Claiborne complained of his players' complacency coming off the great and glorious 9-3 campaign of 1984.
But that was the exact reason why it was felt Kentucky could bounce back. Especially after the 42-0 loss at home to Tennessee, when the Volunteers practically rubbed the Wildcats' noses in the ground before a national television audience. That was surely enough motivation.
Everything Pointed Towards An Excellent Year
In the past, Claiborne teams at Virginia Tech and Maryland have come back from tough seasons to produce winning campaigns. In fact, only once in 24 years had a Claibome-coached team experienced back-to-back losing seasons. That was in his first two years at Virginia Tech.
Claiborne was 61-39-2 at Tech, with two teams going to bowl games. At Maryland, he was 77-37-3, winning a conference-record 21 straight games and going to seven bowl games. He was even named National Coach of the Year in 1974.
In short, it was difficult to believe that UK would suffer two straight disappointing seasons under the Hopkinsville native.
Another reason for hope was because of a favorable schedule. Kentucky had home games against Southeastern Conference powers Louisiana State, Georgia and Florida. It was also at home to Rutgers, Kent State, Southern Mississippi and Vanderbilt. Road games were at Cincinnati, only 80 miles away, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Kentucky hasn't fared that poorly against Ole Miss in the past and it had beaten Tennessee, 17-12, two years ago in Knoxville. So it wasn't inconceivable that, with a few breaks here and there, that UK could have a winning season and go to a bowl game.
Still another reason was because of the talented players coming back. Quarterback Bill Ransdell, linebacker Larry Smith and fullback Marc Logan, were all seniors and looking for a great final season. Other talented players like backs Mark Higgs and Ivy Joe Hunter, receivers Eric Pitts, Mark Wheeler and Cornell Burbage,
defensive standouts Chris Chenault, Tony Mayes, Jerry Reese and Tom Wilkins were on the roster, as well as super kicker Joe Worley.
All these players vowed that 1985 was a fluke and that they were going to atone for it, no matter what it took.
Some Things Ton Inst Can't Take For Granted
But these were all intangible factors, not set in concrete. Being at home doesn't mean you're always going to win. Talented players have a tendency to perform below par. Breaks don't usually go the losers' way most of the time.
It didn't get off to a good start. UK was tied by Rutgers, 16-16, and everybody pointed to the season-opening loss the year before to Bowling Green.
But Kentucky came back to beat Kent State, 37-12, Cincinnati, 37-20 and Southern Miss, 32-0. It was 3-0-1. I was congratulating myself. The skeptics were in trouble.
Then UK loses four straight, at Jackson to Ole Miss, 33-13, at home to LSU, 25-16 and Georgia, 31-9, and at Blacksburg to Virginia Tech, 17-15.
Oh oh, I thought. Looks like the skeptics are right.
Then the Wildcats proceed to rout the Vanderbilt Commodores 34-22 and upset the highly-favored Florida Gators 10-3 at Commonwealth Stadium.
The week before the Tennessee game, UK was told it would receive an invitation to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis if it could
L«!!»n To Th» Editor
knock off the Vols at Neyland Stadium. No problem, UK's players said. We've got enough incentive already. Losing 42-0 doesn't happen every day.
The result? A humilating 28-9 setback in which UK blew several scoring opportunities.
The expression on Claiborne's face after the Tennessee loss was sad to see. Nobody's worked harder than him to turn his alma mater's fortunes around. But talking about it and doing it is not easy to pull off. Lots of coaches have tried their hands at UK. Only one in the post-World War II era, Paul "Bear" Bryant, has been extremely successful. Claiborne is currently the second best. The others all had losing records.
Before the season began, I wrote that this was a critical year for Jerry Claiborne's program. I still believe that. It remains to be seen whether or not many of the state's best recruits will turn their backs on the home university since Kentucky had a less than stellar season. Some believe there are at least 20 NCAA Division I prospects amongst Kentucky's prep schools this year. That's the best in years.
The disappointing 1986 season will make it tougher for Claiborne and his staff to recruit the players they want to turn hopeful seasons into predictably better ones. But Claiborne recruited enough athletes to help turn 1982's 0-10-1 disaster into successive 6-5-1 and 9-3 years. Maybe he can pull it off again.
But that's easier said, and much easier to predict, than it is done.
UK Needs Recruits
This upcoming recruiting season for Kentucky football may be the biggest in the Jerry Claiborne era as there are at least 20 Division I players and probably a few sleepers in the state.
Kentucky needs to sign all of these and at least 10 good, if not great, players from out of state to keep UK competitive in the SEC. UK cannot compete without them.
It doesn't matter how good the coaching is. Claiborne is a good and well respected coach, but cannot win at UK without quality players. I hope these boys realize that and go with the Wildcats.
As I have been living in Louisiana the last five years, I have grown accustomed to some good football, but the coach at LSU isn't any better than Claiborne; he just gets more quality players.
Give Claiborne good players and we'll all be on Bourbon Street New Year's Eve.
With the new facilities UK is building, I sure hope those boys will stay home and bring some better times to UK.
G. R. Goodaker
Lake Charles, Louisiana
Fan Rates Prospects
By now everyone knows what an outstanding early recruiting class Kentucky enjoyed in basketball.
To put this in perspective, I ranked UK's signees against the recruiting crops of other schools based on Bob Gibbons' preseason top 100 senior high school players.
For signing a player in the top five, 25 points were awarded to that school, 24 for signing a player in the second and so on, down to 5 points for signees ranked in the top 100.
Based on this system, here are the top 20 recruiting classes in the November signing
No. Team Signees Points
1. Kentucky 6 104
2. N.C. State 4 75
a U.C.L.A. 3 56
4. Pittsburgh 4 49
5. North Carolina 2 46
6. Ohio State 2 44
6. Kansas 2 44
6. Indiana 2 44
9. Iowa 4 39
9. Florida 2 39
11. Oklahoma State 2 37
12. Duke 2 36
13. South Carolina 3 34
14. Miss. State 6 30
14. Washington State 6 30
16. Illinois 2 30
17. Florida State 4 29
18. Georgia 4 25
18. Mississippi 5 25
18. Oregon 5 25
18. Louisville 1 25
Craig Thomas Cincinnati, Ohio