They can't go to a bowl or play on national television and they have had so many injuries that at times Coach Fran Curci must wonder whether his best team is on the field or in the infirmary. In other words, the Kentucky Wildcats would seem to lack the incentive and the manpower to be having one of the best seasons in college football. But they are, thanks mainly to Quarterback Derrick Ramsey and Defensive End Art Still, a couple of high school teammates from Camden, N.J. The 6'5", 222-pound Ramsey may be the most intimidating quarterback in the country; the 6'7", 247-pound Still anchors a Wildcat defense that has given up an average of only 9.7 points a game.
Boasting an 8-1 record, the Wildcats have the notion that they are as good as anybody, anywhere. They have won at home and they have gone on the road and beaten the likes of Penn State (24-20), LSU (33-13) and Georgia (33-0). After their most recent victory, a 28-6 drubbing of Vanderbilt last Saturday in rain-soaked Nashville, Commodore Coach Fred Pancoast all but admitted that Kentucky is more awesome than a couple of other powerhouses on his schedule—namely, Oklahoma and Alabama.
"We just got beat by a great football team," said Pancoast. "Kentucky is the best team I've seen in the Southeastern Conference in a long time. We were actually lucky. It could have been worse. Their defense is the best one I've ever seen in college football, and we tried everything in the world to stop Ramsey but couldn't. He's a great athlete."
Since Kentucky and Alabama are not scheduled this season, wouldn't it be a fine thing for the two SEC powers to meet in the Sugar Bowl? Because of a one-year NCAA probation for recruiting violations, however, the Wildcats are destined to spend Jan. 2 at home wondering what if. The bowl scouts are just as sick as Curci and his players; besides having a talented team, the Wildcats have a large and loyal following that not only fills Commonwealth Stadium for every home game but also shows up wherever the team plays on the road. The games at LSU, Georgia and Vandy were all sellouts, largely on account of Kentucky's mobile rooters. In Atlanta, Peach Bowl officials and merchants still are talking about the 37,000 fans who swarmed into town last New Year's Eve to see the Wildcats beat North Carolina 21-0 in their first bowl game in 25 years.
Last Saturday the expressways leading to Nashville were clogged with cars bearing blue-and-white Wildcat stickers and wild-eyed rooters bound for Vandy's Dudley Field. By game time there were a lot more fans in the crowd of 34,694 wearing blue and white than Vandy's black and gold. In what may have seemed like the first road game Vandy ever played at home, the Wildcat rooters rejoiced when their heroes broke a 6-6 tie at the half with 15 points in the third quarter. This explosion gave Kentucky a 77-7 bulge over its opposition in the third quarter this season.
As he always seems to do, Ramsey was the man who took charge. With star runner Rod Stewart out for the season because of a knee injury, and various other backs hurt at one time or another, Ramsey has assumed the added burden. He's so big and strong that he can pass with tacklers clinging to him. And when he gets loose in the secondary, few backs can stop him one-on-one. Pro scouts once viewed Ramsey more as a tight end prospect than a quarterback, because his passing was unreliable. This season, however, Ramsey's throwing has improved so much that he ranked second in the SEC going into the Vanderbilt game.
"I didn't used to think so, but now I definitely think the pros have to look at him as a quarterback," said Curci, himself a former pro quarterback. "He's so durable, that has to count for something. Besides, he's never been asked to pass much until recently. The fact that he's learned to do it so well so fast is testimony to the kind of athlete he is."
Against Vandy, the 80-yard drive opening the second half was vintage Ramsey. First, he circled right end for 39 yards, then he hit Wide Receiver Dave Trosper with a 24-yard pass and ultimately scored himself from the two to put the Wildcats ahead to stay. Later, Ramsey bulled over the right side for 45 yards, carrying a Vanderbilt linebacker piggyback part of the way.
Meanwhile, Still and the Wildcat defense put the clamps on Vandy. Kentucky's third touchdown was set up when Linebacker Dave Fadrowski intercepted a pass and returned it to the Vandy six, from where Joe Dipre bulled over on the next play. The extra point gave Kentucky a 21-6 lead, and Vandy fans began to move toward the exits, while the Wildcat rooters whooped it up.
"When I came here, I said my goal was to give our fans a good enough team that they could be as obnoxious as fans in other parts of the country," says Curci, smiling. "I think our fans have gotten to the point where they can carry on with the best of 'em."
In five years Curci has done what supposedly couldn't be done—return Kentucky football to the glory it enjoyed under Bear Bryant in the early 1950s. With the help of Kentucky University President Dr. Otis Singletary, who believes strongly in intercollegiate athletics, and the five-year-old Commonwealth Stadium, Curci found he had what it took to recruit blue-chip players. It didn't come easy. Still admits that when Curci got in touch with him, he thought he was going to be offered a scholarship to play basketball.
To get Still and Ramsey, Curci had to outmaneuver both basketball and football recruiters. Playing both sports at Camden High, they had led the football team to an unbeaten season their senior year, and the basketball team to a state championship. Curci was able to beat out hundreds of other schools mostly because he had an "in" with Andy Hinson, the coach at Camden.
While Curci took a couple of years to decide whether to play Ramsey at quarterback or tight end, he installed Still in the starting lineup as a freshman and began to build for the future around him. Like Ramsey, Still is the quiet, soft-spoken type who leads by example, and the pro scouts love his size and quickness. Against LSU, Still scooped up a blocked field-goal attempt and then outraced a defensive back to score a touchdown. Still has also impressed no less a football authority than Prince Charles, who met him during halftime of the Kentucky-Georgia game while on his recent state visit. "My word," said the prince, gazing upward, "you're a big one, aren't you?"
As big and as good as he is, Still is only part of what Wildcat Rover Dallas Owens calls the "Hijackers Anonymous," because they have caused 25 turnovers despite rarely being certain who will be playing on a given Saturday. By the third game, star Linebacker Jim Kovach and two tackles had been lost for the season with injuries, so Curci installed 5'11", 227-pound reserve Richard Jaffee at nose guard, moved Jerry Blanton to tackle and held his breath. The results have been devastating. Owens intercepted two passes to break open the Penn State game. Linebacker Mike Martin blocked a punt to start the avalanche at Georgia. The defense held Vandy to an average of 14 inches—that's inches—every carry. And so it goes.
"The defense is the key for us," says Curci. "Our kids are so close and they're so quick and when somebody gets hurt, somebody else moves in and takes over. To be honest with you, I'm amazed."
With no bowl to anticipate, Kentucky's goal is a 10-1 record (the loss was to Baylor in the second game of the season) and bragging rights to the SEC title. To do that the Wildcats must win at Florida this week, then beat hated Tennessee at home. Both those teams might be interested in some rather startling comments made by Ramsey after the Vandy game.
"I think we're one of the best teams in the country," he said, "but I don't know how good we are. I don't think we've played our best game yet."