He deserved to go
out in style, riding atop his players' shoulders in the giddy aftermath of a
bowl victory, but it wasn't to be that way for Jerry Claiborne. Instead, after
his Kentucky team completed a disappointing 6-5 season with a 31-10 loss to
Tennessee on Nov. 25 in Lexington, Claiborne trotted off the field amid cries
of "Hang it up, Jerry." Three days later he did, at the age of 61, and
college football is the poorer for it.
Although only 20
Division I coaches have won more games than the 179 Claiborne won in his 28
years at Virginia Tech, Maryland and Kentucky, he never got the publicity he
deserved. He wasn't glib like Lou Holtz, or slick like Barry Switzer, or a
constant contender for the national championship like his mentor, Bear Bryant.
He acquired a reputation for being difficult to interview, and in truth,
Claiborne barely tolerated the press conferences, the call-in shows and the
glad-handing that come with being a big-time college coach.
But he loved
football with all his heart. Going back to the late 1940s, when he was a star
defensive back for Bryant at Kentucky, Claiborne loved the contact on the field
and the challenge of beating the other guy both physically and mentally.
After working as
an assistant under Bryant at Kentucky, Texas A&M and Alabama, and under
Frank Broyles at Missouri, Claiborne became head coach at Virginia Tech in 1961
and held a like position every year thereafter except one, when he was an
assistant at Colorado, in '71. His goal always was to return to Kentucky, and
his alma mater's call finally came in '82.
The program he
inherited was a disgrace. Under Fran Curci, whose best team finished 10-1 in
1977, the Wildcats had recruited a lot of good athletes who were questionable
citizens. Players were arrested on a variety of charges, there were allegations
of fixed games, and Kentucky was put on NCAA probation for one year for
recruiting violations, all of which contributed to an outlaw reputation for the
Wildcats. When Curci was fired, however, it wasn't so much because of the
scandals as because he had had four straight losing seasons.
It took Claiborne
a while to clean house, change attitudes and establish values. His first team
went 0-10-1, Kentucky's only winless season, but by his third year the Wildcats
were 9-3. The records after that were only 5-6, 5-5-1, 5-6, 5-6 and 6-5. Still,
Claiborne was the first Kentucky coach since Bryant to win at least five games
in seven straight seasons, and he did it with athletes who went to class and
got their degrees. Earlier this year, Kentucky won the College Football
Association's annual national award for percentage of players graduated: 18 of
the 20 Wildcats in the recruiting class of 1983 had received their diplomas
within five years of matriculating.
Claiborne was upgrading the image of football, the basketball program, far more
popular and successful, was coming under intense scrutiny for rules violations
that led last spring to severe NCAA sanctions (page 54). Yet Claiborne never
received the fan support that basketball coach Eddie Sutton, who resigned last
March, or Sutton's predecessor, Joe B. Hall, enjoyed. All that academic stuff
is O.K., the feeling seemed to be, but what's so hot about five or six
Claiborne often seemed even more impatient in his press conferences, but when
he retired, it wasn't because of pressure from fans, the media or, especially,
the university. He had four years remaining on his contract, and Kentucky
president David Roselle had made it clear that Claiborne was running exactly
the sort of program Roselle wanted: clean and competitive. He decided to
retire, Claiborne said, because his heart was no longer in the game, especially
recruiting. On the day he announced his retirement, the newspapers carried a
story that Kentucky had placed 17 players on the SEC academic honor roll, a
record for the conference.
His players cried
when he told them he was leaving, and the next few days were filled with phone
calls from former players and former assistants. One call came from the student
manager of the first team he coached, at Augusta Military Academy, in Fort
Defiance, Va., in 1950, and Claiborne was thrilled to hear that the former
manager is now a successful attorney.
coaching is one of the few professions left where you can change people and
help them be good citizens and parents," he said. "It's exciting to
work with these guys and then see them go out and be successful."