THE SETTING WAS RIPE FOR SCANDAL

College football is vulnerable to rumor. At Kentucky an off-campus murder catalyzed the suspicions
December 08, 1975

Nearly 25 years ago a great University of Kentucky basketball team made headlines when it was discovered that it had manipulated the scores of its games for profit. The news of the team's infidelity rocked Kentucky and a nation's sports fans, and the term point shaving, if not coined by the scandal, was at least given wider understanding because of it. This fall the chill breath of a possible second scandal, this time involving a not-great Kentucky football team, blew over the campus in Lexington. That it was not immediately dispelled is the subject of considerable conjecture and no small amount of indignation. Now, at season's end, the Kentucky case merits examination in detail, not so much for its own unusual particulars, but because it reveals from what sources and sequences of events can spring allegations that a team or player is throwing games or shaving points. Stripped bare of the mitigating, if bizarre, circumstances, this is the anatomy of the Kentucky case:

On Saturday, Oct. 11, Kentucky, a four-point favorite, lost a football game to Auburn 15-9. Trailing 9-0 with 6:28 to play, Auburn, which had not won a game, scored on a desperate 72-yard pass when Kentucky Safety Tony Gray was 20 yards out of position. Then Auburn quickly scored again after a fumble on the kickoff by Sonny Collins, Kentucky's best back.

At 11:30 that night a Lexington man with a long police record was kidnapped outside his apartment. Three of the men subsequently arrested for the crime visited Collins in his dormitory room almost two hours later, "Around 1 a.m.," Collins said. One of the three was Kentucky's 1974 All-America tight end, Elmore Stephens, a first draft choice of Kansas City, who was cut in August after being traded to the Giants. Another was John Bishop, a former Kentucky assistant team manager, fired by Coach Fran Curci. Authorities said that the kidnapping may have been a reprisal for a holdup and drug theft that afternoon involving a quantity of cocaine with a street value of $60,000.

On Monday, Oct. 13, the arrests were made.

The same day Tony Gray quit the Kentucky team. He objected to being "singled out" in the loss to Auburn. Like Bishop and Stephens, Gray was a graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School in Louisville. He grew up down the street from Stephens, a year behind him in school.

On Oct. 18 Kentucky, favored by three points, lost to LSU 17-14. Curci cited "poor tackling."

On Oct. 21 the body of the kidnap victim, Luron Eugene Taylor, 24, floated to the surface of the Ohio River near Jeffersonville, Ind. and was spotted by a tugboat operator. Two days later Stephens and Bishop, who had been arrested for allegedly kidnapping Taylor, were also charged with murder.

On Oct. 25 Kentucky lost to Georgia 21-13 (Georgia was favored by eight points). Collins was held to 89 yards.

On his 5:35 p.m. broadcast of Monday, Oct. 27, Sports Director Phil Foster of Lexington radio station WLAP reported "rumors" of an investigation of Kentucky football by the NCAA for "alleged point shaving." Foster said, "The NCAA will neither confirm nor deny" that an investigation was taking place.

News of the "news" of the rumors spread rapidly. Television reports made teasing references to the story, and wire services moved it around the country. Collins, already questioned twice by police, once "after midnight" on Oct. 13 and once "about 4 a.m." on Oct 17, was questioned by the FBI, this time about point shaving, he said. Under the headline "Investigations, rumors cloud UK football scene," the Louisville Courier-Journal quoted Gray as saying, "There's a whole lot of mess going on here." Gray said questioning him would be a dead end because he wasn't the one with the "fine threads" and the "new car."

The insinuations seemed plain enough: Kentucky players were fixing games. ("Point shaving" in this case was a euphemism; the team was losing, not cutting its margin of victory.) Kentucky had outplayed most of the teams it lost to, including Penn State, Kansas and Auburn, but had pulled defeats out of the fire with extravagant mistakes and misadventures. There was an implied narcotics connection, though ill-defined, together with the hot-off-the-blotter kid-nap-murder and its familiar cast of characters. Collins was somehow involved. Gray, too. It was Collins, of course, who wore fine clothes and drove a big car. He also had an off-campus apartment, sipped drinks at an artsy off-campus discotheque called The Library (whose co-owner made no bones about betting on Kentucky games) and squired many fine-looking young ladies. He appeared to favor blondes. He was on intimate terms with Lexington horse people and others who liked to bet on football, which, Bear Bryant, a former Kentucky coach, once said, excludes about nobody in the state. He was also a friend of Stephens and Bishop. The latter had stayed in Collins' off-campus apartment and left clothes there the night of the kidnapping.

But....

Despite their neat construction, none of these intimations stands up. If the Kentucky team were dumping games, there would be evidence of a betting coup, either locally or nationally. There is none. Bookmakers in Lexington and oddsmakers in Las Vegas report there were no irregularities in the betting line. And they would be the first to holler. Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder, the Las Vegas oddsmaker, said there wasn't "a whisper" in Vegas. Snyder was indignant over the charge, being a close friend of John Y. Brown Jr., the Kentucky Fried Chicken millionaire who is an active Kentucky alumnus and known to be an active bettor.

No Kentucky games were taken off the board. No abnormal amounts of money were bet on Kentucky's opponents. On the contrary, says one Louisville gambler, Kentucky was favored in seven of its 11 games and the spread over LSU actually went up, from two to three points, before kickoff. The same before the Tulane game: up from nine to 11 points. During the season Kentucky beat the spread only twice. Despite talk of "arrangements," and the team's curious inconsistencies, the bookies said it was "wild" the way the Kentucky faithful kept laying their money on the team.

Examination of Kentucky game films and play-by-play statistics shows no suspicious patterns in the team's breakdowns. Curci himself went back over the films and found only what he already knew: a depressing series of "two-minute disasters" in the form of penalties, errors and numbing twists of fortune were the gremlins in Kentucky's hard-earned defeats, not any player or group of players. They were misfortunes hardly new to Kentucky football, which had been an exercise in futility since Bryant left in 1953. Curci, hailed as savior when his second Wildcat team went 6-5 and set attendance records last year, had warned Kentucky fans that with a tougher schedule "we could be better and not have a better record. We have not learned how to win."

The ways Kentucky found to lose were extraordinary. Each week new goats stepped forward. Pass interference by Ray Carr and a personal foul by Tony Gray on successive plays abetted Kansas' drive to its winning touchdown in a 14-10 game (the betting line was Kentucky by 13). It must be said that Carr is also from Thomas Jefferson High in Louisville, but the fumble that set up the drive was credited to a tight end from Corbin, Ky. Against LSU, a freshman quarterback from Chicago had two passes intercepted. In two attempts. He also fumbled once. The fumble and an interception set up LSU's two touchdowns. Against Penn State (a 13-point favorite), Kentucky was trailing 7-0 in the second quarter when another quarterback (from Camden, N.J.) was intercepted at the State two-yard line. An official caught Kentucky holding on the play and gave Penn State the ball plus 15 yards. The final score was 10-3. In the three-point loss to LSU, Curci ordered a time-out just as the LSU placekicker was in the act of attempting a 40-yard field goal. The kick was wide, but officials duly noted the time-out and gave the kicker a second chance. This time he made it, with three seconds to go in the half. "We were just trying to make him think about it," said Curci. "He thought about it real good." Meanwhile, the Kentucky field-goal kicker, John Pierce of Cynthiana, who set team records last year, went through a four-game period in which he missed 11 of 14.

Kentucky's most painful, most obvious flaw was that it lacked good quarterbacking. Without a passer (Curci tried four), Kentucky's offense was more grind than glide. Opponents went into goal-line defenses at midfield and the Wildcats had to slug it out week after week.

It is in this perspective that the performance of Alfred (Sonny) Collins must be considered. As the cutting edge of the Kentucky attack, Collins was a marked man. Defenses tightened up, daring Kentucky to pass, and played strong on the corners to force Collins inside ("I spent half my time trying to find ways to get Sonny outside," said Curci). The racehorse became a plow horse. At 6 feet, 186 pounds, with a 28-inch waist and sprinter's legs—long, ropy calves and heavily muscled thighs and buttocks—Collins is not Larry Csonka, Curci pointed out, but he was being asked every Saturday to get those toughest of yards.

Against Auburn, Collins carried 32 times for 109 yards; his longest run was 11 yards. Against Penn State, he carried 32 times for 140 yards; he was 21 for 192 against LSU, 27 for 133 against Kansas. In discussing the fumble in the Auburn game, Curci said it should be added that Collins carried 15 times without fumbling on Kentucky's drives to its three field goals. Furthermore, a film review of the fumble shows Collins was dealt a wicked blow from the side that forced the ball loose. When it is mentioned that Collins inexplicably took himself out of the Kansas game with five minutes to play in the first half and Kentucky on the Kansas seven-yard line (the drive immediately petered out), Curci notes that "Sonny had carried seven of the 11 plays prior to that. He was tired. I tell my backs, 'Don't be a hero. If you're tired, get the hell out of there.' "

But a hero is exactly what Curci considered Collins to be—"a super runner, a super kid"—and a fumbler only in a very relative sense. "For one thing, he's got bad eyes, myopia, but even without that it is not unusual for a great back to fumble. He sees a crack and reacts so quickly he sometimes goes without the ball. I had Chuck Foreman at Miami and he was the same way. As many times as they get the ball and get hit, you have to figure they'll drop it now and then." Collins fumbled four times in 248 carries (while covering 1,150 yards, his second 1,000-yard season), but only the one against Auburn could truly be called crucial.

What made that game's outcome easy to misread was the context in which it was played. In a provincial horseman's town, all too familiar with the maneuvers of smart money, the high hopes and low yield of a favorite football team are subject to passionate scrutiny. Make no mistake—there were rumors. And Collins was at their vortex: 1) because he naturally stands out, on and off the field; and 2) because a man he did not know (Luron Taylor) was kidnapped and murdered, and three men he did know were arrested for it.

Collins says he had returned from a dance after the Auburn game with a girl friend when the three knocked on the door of the Kirwan I dormitory room he shares with teammate Terry Haynes, a defensive end from Tennessee. With Stephens and Bishop was 22-year-old Robert Channels. Collins says, "I know him well enough to tell Terry never to leave the room when Channels is here. He just looks roguish." (Channels was arrested for possession of marijuana the following night.)

Though Collins had played with Stephens, "and I love all my offensive linemen," they were "never what you'd call real close. I know I was surprised when the Giants cut him, because he was so good. Big and strong and quick. If he'd wanted to make it he'd have made it. He could half try, just go half speed, and make you think he was blocking everybody. He likes to give people the impression he's kind of slow, but he's all business."

Bishop had fallen from favor with the Kentucky athletic department shortly after Curci's arrival three years ago. Curci says Bishop "had a reputation for sticky fingers." Equipment Manager Choke Es-pin barred Bishop from the equipment room. Collins said Bishop "got shot in. the butt in Louisville last summer and after that he was kind of bitter, like he was mad at everybody and wanted revenge. But we always got along just fine."

Bishop, Collins says, was "wearing one of my jackets when he came in. I said, 'Hey, man, that's a nice jacket.' He said he'd return it when he went to pick up his clothes at the apartment the next day. He was staying there. I didn't mind, I always left a key on the window ledge for my parents. Everybody knew it was there. Not much in the apartment anyway except some beanbag chairs and some old furniture I picked up at auction sales."

The dormitory visit, Collins says, was nothing unusual. "John [Bishop] wasn't even excited like he usually gets. We talked about the game, mostly. They tried to make me feel better. They could see I had a chick there, though, and after about 15 minutes they left."

One investigator was quoted later as saying that the three used Collins' name "as an alibi" when arrested. Stephens also claims it was not unusual for him to drop by the dorm after games. "I couldn't get tickets," he says. "They were always sold out, so I'd go around to see what happened." He says he'd seen Collins "a few times" since his return to Lexington from the Giants' camp (Collins does not remember seeing Stephens).

Stephens agrees that he and Collins were "not that close." He says he was wary of Collins when he first met him. Why? Because he ran with whites?

"Yeah, you know how that goes—the dudes kind of check it out, see what's happening. After a while I got to know him pretty good. He's just doing his thing, that's all."

Collins has indeed floated freely across the lines of Lexington social life, heedless of any real or imaginary barriers. He appears to live high—his stylish clothes run to eye-catching vests and leather jackets and platform shoes, and beneath his Afro wig he wears thick, tinted prescription glasses. When he smiles he is almost Hollywood handsome. He makes friends easily ("I love people," he says), and they gravitate to him. Some are what one ex-Kentucky player calls "our sugar parents."

But the "new car" is a 1972 Riviera with chipped paint and a chattering tail pipe, and some of the chrome is loose; in fact, one piece is lying on the back seat. And the highball glass at The Library is really a 7 UP with a twist of orange. And though his friend the co-owner, Jimmy Lambert, "used to get well betting against Kentucky," Lambert has said he found himself so attached to Sonny and the team that he "lost along with everybody else." Sonny used to laugh when Lambert said he was going to "bet my house" on the next game. He calls Lambert "a beautiful person." Lexington detective Sam Church confirmed a report that Collins took at least one trip to Las Vegas with Lambert.

Sonny's off-campus apartment is rented just for the season by Collins' parents, who drive up from Madisonville on weekends for the games. Collins' father, a highly religious man with whom Sonny is "extremely close," works for Coca-Cola as a maintenance man and signed for the Riviera ("he got a real good deal") when Sonny chose Kentucky. He says his father can "always tell when I'm upset, even on the telephone. I try to hide it, but he can tell."

"The trouble with Collins is that he's too damned sensitive," says a former teammate. "He wants to please everybody. Be everybody's friend. No one can do that." The questioning by police shook Collins badly. Naturally high-strung—he lost all his hair in high school in the aftermath of a race riot—he said he found himself "doubting my own innocence. People were saying, 'Sonny, they looking at you. They got something on you.' The second time they questioned me they gave me some law books to look at. All about kidnapping and murder. Oh, man, that about blew me away. I got so I began to think I was the fourth man they were looking for. I finally told them to give me a lie detector test, but they didn't do it.

"It got pretty thick. I was getting calls. One guy says—oh, what was it—'Collins, you do that stuff again and we'll get you,' and he hung up. Another guy got to my roommate Terry and said, 'You better tell your friend to straighten up or he won't be able to walk.' Stuff like that."

The effect on Collins' play was more than obvious, says Curci, it was tragic. "They made a basket case out of Sonny," he says. Instead of running with his customary abandon, Collins seemed almost glad to bury himself in pileups, to avoid the risk of fumbling. "All I can think of is 'hold on to the ball,' " he said.

"Tight? Oh, Lord, yes. Wash Gay [a teammate] told me about the rumors, about the 'shaving.' I wanted to die. I thought, boy, all these people in Kentucky who have been so good to me, now they're gonna hate me."

Collins had averaged more than 135 yards a game, but in the victory over Tulane he rushed for only 46. Toward the end of that game he went to Curci and asked not to be put back in. "I don't want to mess up," he said. In the weeks that followed, his statistics were very poor: 39 yards against Vanderbilt in an upset loss; 68 against Florida. In the season's finale at Tennessee he did not start. He eventually carried 13 times for 53 yards.

Curci said he found Collins crying on the bench at Vanderbilt. "I finally had to get after him, to tell him he was only making matters worse—to just play his best and ride this thing out with the rest of us. But he's an extremely sensitive young man, and he just doesn't shake things off easily. It's criminal what this thing has done to Sonny Collins."

Curci talked of suing radio station WLAP and sportscaster Foster for "getting the whole damn thing started." Almost every day he had to field fresh rumors, each more outlandish than the one before. The day the team left for Vanderbilt, Sports Information Director Russell Rice came to the practice field with news that a Louisville paper had "heard" that Curci was about to resign. "They'll have to drag me out of here," said Curci. "But now you see what I'm going through. They're going to ruin our program with this stuff. We won't be able to recruit anybody."

According to police official Joe Catt, there had long been rumors of drug usage on the Kentucky campus, but the cocaine theft and murder brought them to the fore. Stephens has claimed he knows nothing about the missing cocaine, although he does say he was held up in Channels' apartment by Taylor and that $1,000 in cash and a $500 watch were stolen. (The loss of the cash and the watch was reported to police.) Stephens denies even the use of marijuana at Kentucky, or any knowledge thereof, but Collins said a month ago, "It's around, just like it is on any campus." Gray said Stephens was "big in weed." Collins did not deny having smoked marijuana, but claimed he had "never bought or sold it and never used it during the season," a statement he was to contradict later. Collins said he wouldn't even know what cocaine looked like.

Another major subject of talk concerned associations with "gambling people," partly because of Collins' friendships at The Library and with various known bettors, and partly because of Curci's relationship with John Y. Brown Jr. A Fort Lauderdale newspaper once reported that Brown had added $22,500 to Curci's base salary as incentive to bring him to Kentucky. Curci denied it then and does now (outside salary supplements are against NCAA rules), and offers correspondence with the NCAA as proof. Kentucky President Otis A. Singletary also denies it, and states further that "John Y. Brown Jr. had nothing directly to do with the hiring of Curci," that it was the decision of the UK search committee.

Nevertheless, Curci says he realized the need to move carefully in the environment in which he found himself. When Brown brought Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder to the Curci home after a game two years ago, Curci told him to please come back another time. "It's not that I don't like Jimmy," he says, "but it wasn't the time or the place."

Ordinarily, Curci prefers to take an equally gingerly stance toward his players. "I'd rather not know too much," he says. "You can be made to look awfully foolish. For example, I'd never say, 'It can't happen here,' because it can. Adolph Rupp was quoted as saying they couldn't touch his boys 'with a 10-foot pole,' and you know what happened. So I don't say that. I just know where I stand, and I try to get involved only when I have to."

With Collins he made an exception last summer when, Curci said, a Lexington banker tried to help Sonny purchase a new Jensen-Healey with a balloon mortgage—ride now, pay later. Curci went around to Collins, who had the car out "on trial," and ordered him to take it back. Collins says he never intended to keep it.

Ironically, it was Curci's see-no-evil approach that helped cloud the issue and compound the troubles. When Tony Gray quit he not only cited his being blamed for the Auburn touchdown pass (Curci denied making him the scapegoat) and subsequent demotion to second string, but talked of Curci's "lack of interest" in his personal affairs. Gray was having marital and financial difficulties at the time. The story bumped headlines with the kidnap-murder and, ultimately, when the "shaving" rumor broke, it was Gray's luck to be the bearer of bad tidings ("the mess" at Kentucky).

Gray now says those remarks were made mostly "while I was laying around the room" after the interview and concerned his own particular gripes.

"I froze on the [Auburn touchdown] pass," he says. "I admit that. I missed the change they made at quarterback, when they put in the guy we'd been told was their passer, and I didn't pick up the key, and when I realized what was happening it was too late. But there were still two fumbles after that [by Collins and Steve Campassi on successive kickoffs], and I didn't think it was fair to blame me. Then on Monday, when they demoted me to second team, I quit."

Curci says that Gray had quit before, the week of the Tennessee game in 1974. "I had told him then that the next time would be the last."

The irony was apparent once more. On the day the story appeared quoting Gray about "the mess going on here," Gray was in Curci's office with two of his (Gray's) high school coaches, seeking reinstatement. Curci told him he'd have to take it up with the team, that as far as he was concerned the issue was closed. Gray never took it to the team. "When I saw the paper and the way I was quoted, I didn't go to class for two days," he said.

Gray says there was nothing sinister about his remarks. "When I said 'a lot of mess,' I didn't mean point shaving, I was talking about the kidnapping and the murder. I never even thought about point shaving. The team was close, everybody worked hard to win. Everybody. And Sonny worked hardest of all. Sonny is one hundred percent win."

About a month ago Curci received a letter "of explanation, not an apology" from sportscaster Phil Foster. Foster asked Curci to keep the letter "private." Under the circumstances, Curci said, asking him to do that was "ridiculous."

The letter explained, in 2½ pages, how Foster had arrived at his decision to report what he considered "a statement of fact concerning the rumors" and "not an allegation on my part." He said the rumors had "sickened him," that he was raised in Lexington and "never failed to support any UK team." He said that racism "is still very much alive in...our city, and there are many persons who would love to see someone like Sonny Collins crucified."

Foster said he himself was "out to help, not harm, the team," and hoped to bring everything to a head by allowing Curci the chance to deny the rumors, but that "even though I'm sorry you are reacting the way you are, and I'm sorry the way Lexingtonians are taking the story, I'm not sorry for doing it...."

Something to be examined, then, is the role of Foster, the catalyst of the point-shaving rumors. Foster is 24 years old, a weekend football and basketball player and avowed UK fan. He says he has had season tickets since he was 16. Foster graduated from Kentucky with a degree in political science last May. Before his decision to become a journalist, he worked a year for United Parcel "but I hated it." He took a pay cut to become a disc jockey/newsman in Mt. Sterling, 31 miles east of Lexington. When the sports job opened up at WLAP (Lexington's "second-leading station") two months ago, he grabbed it.

Foster says he was two days on the job when he "began hearing things. Everyone was talking about the point shaving." At a UK basketball picture day, he heard a reporter "whose name I won't mention" talking about it. He heard it at a touch football game and at a party after the Auburn game. He said he talked it over with his news director and they decided to go ahead with the story: a 45-second account of "rumors circulating in Lexington." But that was all. No facts (except, as Foster says, "the fact that there were rumors"), not even an "inside," "unimpeachable" or "reliable" source.

Foster says that when he arrived at the station the next day he heard "there had been a lot of calls—media people, the AP, stations all over Kentucky. At first I was elated. Then I started fielding a few of my own. My spirits plummeted."

His spirits, but not his journalistic fervor. Considering everything, Foster says, "I'd do it again. In my own mind, I did nothing wrong."

Just before the last game of the season, with Tennessee, Curci told his players to "put aside your pot and speed and play ball." It was meant as a joke, but nobody laughed. By this time the university had launched its own investigation of possible violations of NCAA and student code regulations, while specifically stating that there was no evidence of point shaving.

In addition Collins had admitted to Lexington police that he had been smoking marijuana the night of the kidnapping. Two other players, in a statement made to police, were accused by a witness of taking amphetamines before the Penn State game. In total, 17 players were to be interrogated about the use of marijuana and other drugs. Even more ominous, according to police, were hearsay reports concerning possible cocaine use by members of the team, although this did not specifically involve Collins.

Not surprisingly, Kentucky was beaten 17-13 by a Tennessee team that was ordinary by Tennessee's standards. A crowd of $6,000 turned out on a crisp day in Lexington to see the Wildcats finish with a 2-8-1 record, Curci's worst and the first time in five seasons that Kentucky had failed to win a Southeastern Conference game.

Sitting briefly with a game official beforehand, Curci said he had to make "the toughest decision of my life." What was that? the official asked. "Whether to play Sonny Collins," Curci said. When Collins entered the game beginning in the second period, he was "nothing like the Collins I saw earlier in the season," the official said later. "He ran like he was carrying the capitol building."

During the game, the official said, there was more than the customary crosscurrent of muttered oaths and banter by Kentucky players along the line of scrimmage, the sharp-edged talk often borne of frustration and pent-up emotion. "They acted like they wanted to strike out at something," he said. "It was a job keeping them from doing it." In the Kentucky dressing room afterward, Curci pointed an accusing finger at a group of interviewers, singling out Phil Foster, and said, "There's the damn guy who started the whole thing."

That, of course, was a serious oversimplification. A kidnapping started the whole thing. And a murder. And a sequence of events uncanny in their juxtaposition followed. None of them would have taken root, it must be pointed out, had there not been ground ready to receive them—ground that exists almost anywhere big-time college football is played today.

Last week the University of Kentucky was progressing briskly with the investigation of its football program, and looking hard not so much for criminals as for answers. Perhaps it can clear the air once and for all around an embattled young coach, a shaken team and a star player.

What will Kentucky find upon self-examination? Probably not a lot more than any school would find today by turning its eyes inward. It will find that not every student chooses his friends off the church or social register. That not every student spends his Saturday nights at the malt shop, or thinks gambling is a sin or sex an activity only for the marriage bed. That not every student smokes only tobacco.

And when it is over, the investigation will probably show that college football is as vulnerable to rumor today as it ever was. Whether there is a basis for the rumor or not.

PHOTOJAMES DRAKEA swinger in both dress and life-style, Sonny Collins was caught in the eye of the storm. PHOTOJAMES DRAKECoach Curci was steering a rudderless ship. PHOTOJAMES DRAKEEx-Wildcat Stephens was jailed for murder. PHOTOJAMES DRAKEMinus Afro wig, Sonny ponders the action.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)