Sam Bowie's injured left shinbone has been a major topic of conversation among Kentucky football fans during the early stages of the past two seasons. Not that these folks really enjoyed discussing whether Bowie, a gifted 7'1" center, would ever play another game for the revered Wildcat basketball team. It was just that his shin was a more pleasant topic than the Kentucky football squad.
This season, though, Bowie appears to be fit, and, of more immediate import, the Wildcat football team, which last year finished 0-10-1, is 4-0 and off to its best start since the days when Adolph Rupp was first winning national basketball titles. With sound fundamentals, the Wildcats, ranked No. 20 by SI, beat Tulane 26-14 before a near-capacity crowd of 57,425 at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington. The Green Wave, which was coming off a stirring 34-28 upset of Florida State the week before, took a 7-0 lead after Kentucky fumbled on its first possession. But the rest of the way the Wildcats played stingy defense; Quarterback Randy Jenkins, who completed 10 of 19 passes, was at his best on third down; and Running Back George Adams punched inside for 85 yards on 16 carries.
Success-starved Kentucky fans, who suffered as the Wildcats went 15-38-2 from 1978 through '82, are comparing this year's team with the last Kentucky squad to start 4-0, the 1950 Sugar Bowl winner that wound up 11-1. That outfit was coached by Bear Bryant and quarterbacked by Babe Parilli. Coach Jerry Claiborne, who arrived in Lexington last season from Maryland, laughs at the comparison. He ought to know. He set the Wildcat record for interceptions in a season (nine) as a defensive back under Bryant in 1949. In addition, at the start of this season Claiborne had won 138 games in 21 years of coaching, and no one has to remind him that none of those victories came in 1982.
Before facing Tulane, Claiborne reflected on the Wildcats' success, and said. "There's not a lot of difference from last year's team. We might have had even more talent last season. But this year's players have worked harder and have a better attitude. That, and an easier early schedule have been the difference."
Kentucky's first three victims were Central Michigan, Kansas State and Indiana, which have a combined record of only 5-5. And the regionally telecast defeat of Tulane, which dropped to 2-2, was more workmanlike than artistic. The Wildcats took away the big play from the Green Wave, which came in strutting a pro-style attack that first-year Coach Wally English had developed over the past nine years as a top offensive aide with the Detroit Lions and the Miami Dolphins and at BYU and Pitt. Directing Tulane on the field was senior Quarterback Jon English, the coach's son, who became the focus of pregame attention because of his eligibility suit against the NCAA. The day before the season started, Jon got a temporary restraining order that allowed him to play. He then proceeded to take the starting job away from incumbent Bubba Brister, who quit the Green Wave before the Florida State game, contending that favoritism was in the air. But Jon's teammates say he had proved himself to be the better quarterback for Tulane's offense.
On Saturday, however, Jon, a 6'4", 205-pound drop-back passer who had completed 43 of 80 passes for 580 yards and three touchdowns in three previous games, appeared distracted, which was perhaps an aftereffect of having spent Thursday evening in a New Orleans courtroom. In only his second college start, he overthrew several open receivers. He was replaced by backup Wade Elmore late in the third quarter, after connecting on only nine of 24 throws for 70 yards. "The coaches made a reasonable decision in taking me out," said a disappointed English afterward. "Having a bad day, no matter whose son you are, is hard on you and your family. But you'll see a different team next week."
English hopes he'll be on it. Louisiana civil district court judge Revius Ortique Jr. was set to hear more testimony this week on whether English is eligible to play. Hotly recruited out of high school, English enrolled at Michigan State in 1979 but left after one season when it became clear he didn't fit into the Spartans' offensive scheme. After a year at Allegheny (Pa.) Junior College, English played at Iowa State in 1981, but he split last winter because he couldn't break into the lineup there. Believing himself ineligible to play football at an NCAA institution in 1983, because he thought all transfer students had to sit out a year, English entertained thoughts of enrolling at an NAIA school or trying out for a USFL team. Then he carefully read the NCAA bylaw that states that a transfer student from a four-year college is eligible to play only after having sat out a year following the switch from his first four-year school. English's first such school was Michigan State, not Iowa State. After Tulane hired Wally in December, Jon headed for New Orleans.
Tulane supported Jon's eligibility petition before the NCAA, but when the association ruled in August that "first" really means "last," the school sided with the NCAA. Under NCAA Article X, if English loses his case or drops it after the season, the NCAA can force the Green Wave to forfeit any games in which English participated or. worse, confiscate TV revenues for games in which English played. Tulane, an independent, got $340,000 from CBS for the Kentucky game and stands to make nearly as much from its season finale against LSU.
Jon, a personable young man, says he just wants to play football in a system that will best allow him to display his talents to pro scouts. And amid the swirl of controversy, he has kept his sense of humor. As he prepared for Kentucky, he told reporters he wasn't going to mouth "Hi Mom" for TV cameras. "I'm going to wave to my lawyers and say, 'C'mon, guys, earn your money,' " he said.
Certainly Claiborne is earning his. He succeeded the embattled Fran Curci, whose players, in addition to losing, had a propensity for landing in trouble off the field. Although in 1982 fans found out how badly the Wildcats could play, they liked Claiborne's style. His players, however, didn't share that view, at least not immediately. "We rebelled against him last season because we didn't believe in the man's ways," says Linebacker Scott Schroeder. "He demanded hard work, and some of our players were more concerned with what they were doing on Saturday night than on Saturday afternoon. But we lost and lost and lost, and we gradually started believing in him because we had to find some way to win. Now we try to outmean everybody."
The Wildcats have a week off to get mean before facing 12th-ranked Auburn, LSU (No. 15) and Georgia (No. 11) in succession. In fact, six of Kentucky's seven remaining opponents went to bowls last season. But the Wildcats might only need two more wins to do the same this year. Bowl committees remember that 37,000 supporters followed the Cats to the 1976 Peach Bowl.
Who knows? Come Christmastime, Kentucky fans might be talking more about football than Bowie's jump shot.