Posted: 7:06 a.m. Thursday, May 16, 2013
By Hank Rippetoe
Kentucky football has been known since the 1950s as an SEC bottom dweller often fighting Vanderbilt for last place. It wasn't always so. "Bear" Bryant established a winning tradition at Kentucky in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Under his leadership, Kentucky became a national power. The Tuscaloosa News dubbed Bryant's time at Kentucky as The Golden Age at Kentucky.
In 1950, I was Mrs. Duck's kindergarten class at Maxwell Elementary School on the corner of Maxwell Street and Woodland Avenue. At the time, my family lived on Grosvenor Avenue near the Kappa Alpha fraternity house which was located across Rose St. It was still in use when I graduated from UK in 1971. It could've have been mistaken for Animal House.
My father was the accounting manager for the clothing store, Graves, Cox & Co. , which was located on Main Street. It became a tradition for Bryant to bring his squad to the store to be outfitted with sports coats, shirts, pants and ties. This was not an NCAA violation at the time. The same was done for the basketball team. I don't remember my father ever saying who paid for the clothes. It could've been a Graves, Cox donation to the UKAA. The NCAA was just beginning to have teeth and Kentucky was a prime mover as you will discover later, as John Scott explains on his website.
Bryant came to Kentucky from Maryland in 1946. The previous year, Kentucky was 12th in the SEC. Bryant took the Cats immediately to 7-3 which was the first winning season since 1940, but his 2-3 SEC record was only good enough for 8th place. The SEC was tough back then as it is now. Bryant didn't have a winning SEC record until 1949 when his team went 9-3 with a 4-1 SEC record.
That 4-1 record was good enough to put the Cats in second place in the SEC. That season was also Bryant's first bowl game at Kentucky: The Great Lakes Bowl. His lone SEC loss was to General Neyland's Tennessee Volunteers. His first quarterback was George Blanda, who accomplished plenty in the AFL and NFL. To show you just how different college football was from today, this blurb from a Tuscaloosa News article will show you.
We had about 25 returning players and that included guys like George Blanda and Wah-Wah Jones (the basketball All-America),' said Frank Sadler, who came with Bryant from Maryland and served as the team's equipment manager. 'Then we had a tryout in June, mostly veterans coming back from (World War II) and we had about 500 men at the tryout. So in the end, we had 99 candidates.
Blanda was the key to Bryant's early success. Bryant said, "If I had gone to the T-formation that year, and had been more experienced, Blanda might have made All-America." This quote comes from Bryant's autobiography, Bear: The Hard Life and Good Times of Alabama's Coach Bryant.
In Bryant's eight year stay at Kentucky, he never lost more than three games in a season except for his next to last (1952) when he went 5-4-2 and only won one SEC game. When he left Kentucky at the end of the 1953 season, he had compiled 60-23-5 record, had taken the Cats to the Great Lakes Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, and the Cotton Bowl.
The Bear Bryant legend arguably began with that Sugar Bowl game on January 1st, 1950 when Kentucky beat top ranked and undefeated Oklahoma 13-7 and broke the Sooners 31 game win streak. Jeff Sagarin claims that Kentucky should've been declared the National Champion for that year.
Bryant would leave Kentucky at the end of the 1954 season.
As a kid growing up in Lexington, I've heard all the stories as to why Bryant left. I remember my mom and dad talking about a possible affair with a former Governor's daughter. I heard it was because the UKAA wanted to take control of Bryant's recruiting slush fund which had been "donated" by area businesses and the wealthy; another was that Bryant and Rupp couldn't get along. Many sportswriters, including Billy Reed, have that as the reason. The one that stuck, however, was the great cigarette lighter/Cadillac prank. Bryant and Rupp both were responsible for the prank and they duped many with it, including Sports Illustrated.
The beginnings of this myth came during Bryant's speech before the Oklahoma City Quarterback Club on December 8th before the January 1st Sugar Bowl Game against Oklahoma. You can read John Scott's description of the story here as well as his rebuttal. Scott's rebuttal provides a hint as to the real reason Bryant left for Texas A&M.; You can also read the Tuscaloosa News view on this subject.
I remember my mom and dad talking about Bryant's speech at the Oklahoma City Quarterback Club and distinctly remember them laughing about Bryant's comment and sense of humor. I think Bryant and Rupp both were a shocked that the A/P reported Bryant's joke as fact. Both men must have had a laugh at the media gullibility over an obvious joke. I think they decided to perpetuate the joke until someone actually did some fact checking. It seems that only a very few in the media, have done so to this day. Can you imagine Sports Illustrated admitting that they were hoodwinked? There are some who still insist he left because of the cigarette lighter and cite the Sports Illustrated interview with Bryant and this video as proof:
There are several things in this video that are just plain wrong. Bryant told his little joke about the Cadillac and the cigarette lighter in 1950. In the video, Bryant claims that the lighter he's holding in his hand is the actual lighter that he was given by UK. Look at it. It is a plastic lighter. BIC introduced their plastic lighter in 1973, which you could buy at any gas station or grocery from 1969-1970 on. Bryant is clearly holding one of the cheapo versions that hardly lasts a week before the flint goes bad.
At any rate, the cigarette lighter myth has become fact because the national media has made it fact, just like the "Rupp was racist" myth that is now "fact."