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Eternal Optimist Proves His Plan
There he stood, the late afternoon sun painting a silhouette of him as he stirred nervously on the sidelines of famed and storied Neyland Stadium. His face, full of lines from years of battle fatigue, quivered with anxiety, as the scoreboard clock ticked ever so closely to the magical 0:00.
Less than two minutes remained for a return to glory. Jerry Claiborne, a man whom many described as "over-the-hill" and out-of-tune with today's youth when he was hired three years ago to breathe new life into the Kentucky football program, worked his fingers fervorously. His heart must have been pounding a hundred beats a minute.
Never before had Jerry Claiborne tasted victory in Neyland Stadium, not as a star player at UK in the early fifties, nor as an assistant coach nor as a head coach. For a man who has known such great success, Knoxville had not been so kind.
Being the natived Kentuckian, no one knew the value of a victory over Tennessee better than Jerry Claiborne. And in Knoxville, well, such a victory certainly would put an exclamation mark to what had already been one fine season for the Wildcats.
Ever the eternal optimist, Claiborne even had his anxious moments. For most of this day, Tennessee had moved the ball well against the gutty UK defense. Never mind that the Vols usually found someway to cough up the pigskin, the Vols punter had been called on only twice to kick the ball, both in the last half.
Just seconds earlier, freshman Joey Worley silenced the crowd of 93,791 fans with a 34-yard field goal and a 17-12 UK lead which meant the Vols would have to score a touchdown to beat the upset-minded Wildcats instead of field goal.
On the ensuing kick-off, Worley got all of his leg into it and Tennessee made the mistake of trying to come out of the endzone. The fired-up UK defense nailed Charles Wilson on the UT 10. Claiborne cheered and he seemed, just for a second, to be praying.
Now, the Vols would at least have to go 90 yards in less than two minutes. In years past, most UK partisans would have written off the game. Remember those last minute losses to Georgia, Florida and yes, even Tennessee? But not today.
It's first and ten. And the Vols' Tony Robinson goes back to pass. Tony's offensive line had provided him with so much time earlier that he often waited too late to throw the ball. This time, Jon Dumbauld raises his arm skyward and knocks down a pass.
The Wildcat defense goes bananas,
Winning... The Old Fashioned Way
not to speak of the 12,000 or so UK fans in Neyland Stadium.
It's second and ten from the 10. On the sidelines, Claiborne's face clearly illustrates the importance of the next play. He says nothing. He grits his teeth, puts his hands in his pants, then pulls them out and reached for his knees. He pauses, then turns his attention to action.
Robinson reaches under center and then retreats to the pocket. A fellow by the name of Jerry Reese (who just happens to have been recruited from Claiborne's hometown two years ago) introduces himself to Tony with a bearhug and slams the Vol quarterback to the turf, just three yards shy of a safety. Claiborne raises clinched fists and wheels around to the bench in total approvement.
Now it's third and 18. Robinson this time connects with Tim McGee, but McGee is tackled by Russell Hairston and is eleven yards short of the first
down. It's fourth and 11 from the Tennessee 10. UK is one play away from victory. Just when UK appeared to have the game in wraps, Robinson again connects with McGee, this time for 17 yards and a first down at the Tennessee 27.
Claiborne quickly moves up the sidelines, encouraging his troops to give it 110 percent, then again he perches himself toward the action. Eight plays later, which seemed to last an eternity for the Wildcats, eleven ticks remained on the clock and the Vols faced a second and ten situation from the UK 45 after an incompleted pass. Again Robinson spotted McGee who was brought down on the UK 13 after a 31-yard gain and a first down. Was disaster on the way?
McGee, hoping to break a Barry Alexander tickle, was unable to get out of bounds and the Vols had no time-outs remaining. With 0:03 left, the officials stopped the clock to move
the first down markers. Robinson had visions of throwing the ball out-of-bounds and still have a second left for one last play. By the time the ball sailed toward the UT bench, time had expired.
A smile broke across Jerry Claiborne's face. His players raised him to their shoulders, but that wasn't really necessary. Jerry could have walked across the waters for this one. His ole college mentor, Paul "Bear" Bryant, would have delivered a "well-done" compliment to his most successful product on this day.
For it was Tennessee, if you recall, which gave Bryant his most embarrassing moments during the Bear's career. Throughout his great years at UK, Bryant was never able to beat the Vols until his final game as a Wildcat coach.
For Claiborne, it was an especially solemn moment.
"I was just hoping that we would hold on," said a jubilant, but exhausted Claiborne after the game, "you know, I've never won out here at this stadium and this is the first time and it's a real plus."
And what did the Wildcats do?
Immediately after the final horn, the Wildcats raced to the northeast section of the stadium in front of the UK cheering section, chanting "Go Big Blue".
One Tennessee writer caught up with two of the Wildcats. "A number 92," said one writer, "was weeping, well really crying." The writer said he was stunned at first that the player was crying and asked him where he was going. No, 92 said he was going over to the stands.
"What for?" asked the writer.
Said No. 92, "two years ago right here in this stadium, those fans followed us here and gave us a standing ovation and we were 0-9-1 at the time." The Wildcat, holding back tears as best he could told the reporter, "and today, we're paying them back. I love 'em." The player, David Thompson, went on to say how much the Tennessee game means to Kentuckians, about how the "Border Line" game is THE game each season. Not far behind was center Ken Pietrowiak. He, too, praised the Kentucky fans.
"I've covered a lot of sporting events, but I've got to admit that those guys even had me choking up," said the writer, "you just gotta give those kids credit, they deserved the win today.
With that, the players turned to Claiborne, put him high above their shoulders and raced towards the
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