When Bill Curry makes his less-than-triumphant return to Tuscaloosa this week, visiting for the first time since he jilted Alabama in 1990 to take the coaching job at Kentucky, he'll be the object of considerable scorn. And that will be just from fans of the Wildcats, who have watched him do what is arguably the worst coaching job in the history of SEC football. Heaven knows how the Alabama fans will greet him, but gloating will be heavily favored over pity. We told you so, the 'Bama fans can say with considerable justification to Kentuckians. We told you that he's a decent man but a horrible coach.
Long before the Wildcats' 65-0 loss to top-ranked Florida last Saturday—the 15th time in 71 games under Curry that Kentucky has given up at least 40 points—his ineptitude in the Bluegrass State was obvious to just about everyone except Kentucky athletic director CM. Newton, who is closer personally to Curry than to Rick Pitino, the basketball coach who led the Wildcats to the 1996 NCAA championship. In six-plus seasons under Curry, the Wildcats have never had a winning record. Their best showing was a 6-6 mark in 1993, but that was followed by the dismal 1-10 finish of 1994 and a 4-7 record last year. To understand how bad things are in Lexington, here's all you need to know: Kentucky has lost to Vanderbilt five years in a row.
Curry's predecessor, Jerry Claiborne, went winless in 1982, his first season after replacing Fran Curci—whose recruiting violations had resulted in NCAA probation in 1977—but that was a cleanup year in which Claiborne's main goal was to get the program back on track. After that, every one of Claiborne's teams won at least five games, and two squads went to bowl games. Yet Wildcats fans grew increasingly unhappy with Claiborne, who they felt was too old and too unimaginative to take the Wildcats to the next level. Well, Curry has taken the program to the next level, but it's a level down. As one Kentucky wag recently put it, "Maybe it's time to do a book titled Jerry Claiborne: The Golden Years."
It looked as if Curry would get the ax last year. Newton was on the fence the week of the season-ending Tennessee game. Would four wins constitute the demonstrable improvement that Newton had demanded before the season? But Kentucky played its best game of the year against the Vols, losing by a respectable 34-31, and that apparently tipped the scales in Curry's favor. Then, when high school phenom quarterback Tim Couch announced in December that he would attend Kentucky, the fans finally had a glimmer of hope.
Instead of installing a pro-style offense for Couch, however, Curry and his offensive coordinator, Elliot Uzelac (who docs what he wants without interference from Curry), went with an option attack and kept junior quarterback Billy Jack Haskins as the starter. In the Wildcats' season opener, they were drilled by Louisville 38-14 at home. The next week they went to Cincinnati and lost 24-3. In neither game did Couch play until the team was hopelessly behind, and even then he had to run the option.
After the Cincinnati game, former Green Bay Packers star Paul Hornung said on his nationally syndicated TV show, "If I see Tim Couch run the option one more time, I'm going to throw up." This was noteworthy because Hornung, who won the 1956 Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame and has known Curry since they played together in Green Bay, has been one of Curry's staunches supporters. "I love Billy," Hornung added, "but they've got to put in an offense for this kid. I thought they were going to spread it out."
Curry became a lame duck following the loss to Cincinnati. The only question was whether he would be fired immediately or after the season. Newton vowed that nothing would happen until after the final game. "I'm not the general manager of an NFL team," he said. Nevertheless, Newton is running a multimillion-dollar business. This year Kentucky raised football ticket prices to $20 per game, which only deepened the unhappiness among fans.
Last Thursday, Nashville Tennesseean columnist Larry Woody, who knew Newton when he was Vanderbilt's basketball coach in the '80s, quoted the athletic director as saying his decision to retain Curry this year looked liked a mistake "based on the first two games and looking at where the program is." Newton immediately went into damage-control mode. "This came out of a casual conversation I had with Larry during the open week after the Cincinnati game," he said. "What I told Larry was that if you look at it on the basis of two games, then it was a bad decision. But—and this is what was left out—you can't look at it after two games. We still have a whole season to play. Everybody's jumping the gun here."
Not really. Newton can't be naive enough to believe that Curry will turn the program around. The Wildcats are 1-3 after the Florida debacle. Their remaining seven games include three near certain losses—to Alabama, LSU and Tennessee—and there's little reason to believe Kentucky can beat Vanderbilt, much less South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi State.
Newton reiterated last Thursday that "it's unthinkable to change coaches in the middle of the season on the college level." Well, again, not really. In 1992 Arkansas canned Jack Crowe after one game, a loss to The Citadel. In addition, Kentucky's fellow SEC members Florida, Tennessee and Ole Miss have made in-season changes in the past.