John Ray is more than just a pretty face. He is, for one thing, a throat. He is especially a throat. His voice sounds as though his vocal cords were several sizes too large and that one more word—even a short one of a syllable or two—might complete the inflammation and forever seal him up. It well may be that those carolers of Southeastern Conference football who wrote in their daily columns a few weeks ago that interloper Ray had insulted their intelligence by predicting immediate success (championships, bowl trips) for his Kentucky team will expect that to happen, now that Kentucky has played its first game under Coach Ray. Nothing clams a man as quickly as a 28-point defeat.
This strangling experience came to Ray in the game with Indiana last weekend at Lexington. The Hoosiers, insatiable as well as very good, ran up the score in the second half on the new Coach. No sentimentalists they. Ray himself was the first to admit that in 20 years of coaching football his genius at defense had never been so sorely tried. In fewer words, he never had had a thumping like it: 58-30.
Football theater would have been better served by just the opposite result. John Ray was beloved by all at Notre Dame, where he coached the defense and was Ara Parseghian's right arm. He had turned down nine head-coaching jobs in four years before agreeing to come to Kentucky last December. He had picked through the offers carefully, as one separating an artichoke. In Kentucky he saw something. The response, immediate and pronounced, was mutual. And in 10 short months, he created what one university administrator called a "restored expectation" for Kentucky football, which had been played mostly for laughs since Bear Bryant left in 1954.
Harry Lancaster, the athletic director, introduced Ray around—at banquets, to civic clubs—as "our messiah." The Kentucky players talked in awe of that first night when Ray stood before them, handsome and hard-eyed, and in that spectacularly hoarse voice said, "I'm John Ray. I came here to win."
September 28, 1969
Happy Chandler, the former Kentucky governor and ex-commissioner of baseball, sampled the public opinion and said he never saw such enthusiasm in 53 years of following Kentucky football. Adolph Rupp, the autocratic Kentucky basketball coach not famous for his affection for Kentucky football coaches (Rupp always had a thing about staying No. 1), said he was looking forward to the football season for the first time in years.
Rupp, with everyone else in town, took a shine to Ray. He started coming around. He admired Ray's new $1,400 superhandy movie projector and asked Ray where he stole it. "Want one?" said Ray. "I'll take three," said Rupp, smiling. He told Ray he would not mind at all if a few of the football players wanted to come out for basketball.
The Kentucky band delivered a painted scroll, signed by the full membership, pledging its undying support to the new football team and coaching staff. The cheerleaders said they got the largest crowd in history at the bonfire pep rally. The cheerers said they never heard such noise. The Kentucky ticket manager said he never sold more season tickets. The day of the bonfire a coed applied for the team manager's job. She said she was quite willing to go right into the locker room with the players, so devoted to the cause had she become.
The crush for opening-game press-box tickets all but overwhelmed Russell Rice, the publicist, who could not quit marveling at how nice it was to work with the new coach, how available he was, how helpful.
Meanwhile, a Lexington housewife got through on John Ray's private telephone. "Do you realize what you're doing?" she said accusingly. "It's awful what you're doing. You've got all those people going out of their minds trying to buy tickets and there's not enough parking around that stadium as it is."
As the enthusiasm grew, the odds favoring Indiana, a hot Rose Bowl candidate, dropped steadily through the week, from 12 points to 10 to seven and then to five. At the giant pep rally on the Kentucky intramural field, Coach Ray, standing in the glow of the bonfire, eyes flashing, predicted a Kentucky victory. The bigger, faster, more experienced and more plentiful Indiana was pictured as shivering in its boots. At Ray's bidding, the crowd yelled, "We're number one! We're number one!"
Finally, the night before the game, sitting with friends in his motel room on the outskirts of town, loose and apparently confident, Ray twirled the dial of the television set and zeroed in on the late show. "No one will ever believe this," he said, as he realized what he had found, "it's too corny." He settled back to watch Knute Rockne—All-American.
It is not likely that John Ray was entirely prepared for what happened the next day, though he was aware of Indiana's immense potential. He is a born optimist, and the fear of calamity is not in him. There were moments in the deluge when his new team actually acquitted itself well—as when it came from behind at 0-24 to close to 17-24 just before the half—and it never stopped trying to work upstream. He liked that. If its fate was inevitable, its spirit was unfaltering.
But it is also likely that those outside Lexington who challenged the credibility of Ray's visions of quick success with what they knew to be a Kentucky team that had not wakened the echoes for years—the Wildcats have not won an SEC championship since 1950 and have won only three conference games in the last three seasons—those skeptics will not let him forget their admonishments.
They can forgive John Ray his unfailing high spirits and bluff charm. He was, after all, a stranger who had come from a far-off place, where he had enjoyed a great success. But they could not forgive him his disdain for the traditions of coaching in the SEC: a member of that august body must never, never predict victory. Rather, he must mince his words and be humble and keep a tear handy.
What they have perhaps overlooked is a rather remarkable example of what it takes beyond X's and O's and halftime orations for a smart young man (Ray is 43) to kick a football program out of sick bay and back on its feet. In record time. With maximum efficiency.
He began by asking no special considerations from the Kentucky administration other than his long-term contract (fat enough to make him leave Notre Dame) and the right to make his own television deal. Dean W. L. Matthews, the secretary of the Kentucky Athletic Board, said Ray answered questions as if he had been prepped on what officials wanted to hear: no, he didn't care to have his athletes closeted in one dormitory; yes, he thought there were good football players in Kentucky (which has only 163 high schools with football programs, by far the smallest number in the SEC), but not enough of them to completely ignore the feeding grounds in such preserves as Pennsylvania and Ohio; no, he did not want academic requirements altered to aid recruiting; yes, he knew Kentucky was big for basketball (an old excuse for losing football coaches) but it could be big for football, too.
"He said he could solve our problems without changing our circumstances," said Dean Matthews. "He didn't talk of a three-year plan or a four-year plan. He talked of right now, of today. The reason is obvious enough when you think about it: he didn't want to discourage anybody. Some smart coaches aren't very smart about that sort of thing. They talk about three years from now, and the juniors and seniors are discouraged before they suit up."
Finding his facilities and those of his athletes drab and cluttered, Ray ordered a grand sweepup. He cataloged films, set records in order. He painted everything in sight: he brightened, he shined, he polished. He hustled for donations. He put down a Wildcat blue-and-white shaggy rug in his office, and carpeting in the locker rooms, and he put up signs (MAKE YOUR OPPONENT FEAR YOU—AND RESPECT YOU. TAKE THE I'M OUT AND ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE). He ordered newer, lighter, more streamlined uniforms. He commissioned a new painting of the official Wildcat mascot because the old one looked "too sweet." He put in stereo tape decks for the coaches and players, a VIP lounge in an unused old corner of the press box. He arranged for cars for each member of his staff, a yellow Camaro with four-on-the-floor for Publicist Rice "so they can see you coming."
He got around. In 10 months he filled 96 speaking engagements—before Elks, alumni groups, Boys' Clubs, anybody who wanted to hear about Kentucky football. Sometimes he spoke three times in a day, grinding on those vocal cords, hoarsing his message across. He brought his secretary, Kathy Schuler, from South Bend, to keep the wheels going, and his assistant administrator and onetime high school and college coach, Frank Ham, to plot his social course. Once when he was exhausted from the routine he came home to still another luncheon that Ham had accepted for him, and he balked. "Well, hell, John, you gotta eat somewhere," said Ham. Ray kept the appointment.
He influenced people, big people. "He knows the hornets from the flies," said an admiring Dan Chandler, Happy Chandler's lawyer son. "Almost instinctively he knows the hornets from the flies. It wasn't long before he had the hornets flying around him. Why? You'd have to open up his rib cage to find that out. Some got it, some don't."
It is the mark of John Ray that he makes his strongest contact at those points where the current flows direct—to his players and coaches. Ara Parseghian always said players "got sentimental" over John Ray. With them his technique is unbridled affection, huge hugs and loud cuffs on the helmet, and massive throaty exhortations, sometimes to praise, sometimes to embarrass, sometimes to threaten.
To his knowledge, Ray says, he has never had a boy who disliked him. He has tried hard to convince a few. He used to tell Alan Page of Notre Dame, "I'm going to make you a good one or a dead one," trying to shake the lazies out of him. Page said he was convinced he would be dead first, but he lived, and is gratefully residing today with the Minnesota Vikings.
Kentucky has had a history of discontented football players, players who ran from or were run off by the regimen. It's not necessarily a reflection on coaches; it is a matter of style. The style of some coaches is to decimate, to pare down, to strive for an elite group. Ray's style is to consolidate.
He has had a few players quit him but none at Kentucky. He has, in fact, regained a couple—one a starting halfback—who had quit his predecessor, Charlie Bradshaw, last year. His discipline for those who defy his rules has been swift enough to cause others to pause. Dick Palmer, the team's most valuable player last year, was suspended for three games for his involvement in a fight at an off-limits nightspot. Chastened, he hangdogs around the practice field waiting for the suspension to be lifted and praising Ray for the firmness and fairness of his action.
Phil Thompson, a senior end, gives the change in style an almost mystical quality.
"It seemed to rain an awful lot my first three years here," he says. "It seemed colder than it was. I remember how I hated spring practice. Now everything has changed. I wish I had it all to go through again."
It will happen that there will be breakdowns in communication before the season, John Ray's first at Kentucky, is over. There were more than a few in that first game with Indiana, and some auxiliary sloppiness along the way, but at least communication is established and a bond developing. Heroic stories are told around Lexington these days of the day John Ray came to work with a 104° temperature and stayed to the end. And how Assistant Coach Jim Poynter became so exercised in practice he dove for a loose ball and was almost buried by the defense.
And when they talk of that 58-30 game that opened the season, they may well remember it was also the day a Kentucky team lost by 28 points and did not draw a boo. That alone was enough to keep John Ray talking.