Finally, the night before the game, sitting with friends in his motel room on the outskirts of town, loose and apparently confident, Ray twirled the dial of the television set and zeroed in on the late show. "No one will ever believe this," he said, as he realized what he had found, "it's too corny." He settled back to watch Knute Rockne—All-American.
It is not likely that John Ray was entirely prepared for what happened the next day, though he was aware of Indiana's immense potential. He is a born optimist, and the fear of calamity is not in him. There were moments in the deluge when his new team actually acquitted itself well—as when it came from behind at 0-24 to close to 17-24 just before the half—and it never stopped trying to work upstream. He liked that. If its fate was inevitable, its spirit was unfaltering.
But it is also likely that those outside Lexington who challenged the credibility of Ray's visions of quick success with what they knew to be a Kentucky team that had not wakened the echoes for years—the Wildcats have not won an SEC championship since 1950 and have won only three conference games in the last three seasons—those skeptics will not let him forget their admonishments.
They can forgive John Ray his unfailing high spirits and bluff charm. He was, after all, a stranger who had come from a far-off place, where he had enjoyed a great success. But they could not forgive him his disdain for the traditions of coaching in the SEC: a member of that august body must never, never predict victory. Rather, he must mince his words and be humble and keep a tear handy.
What they have perhaps overlooked is a rather remarkable example of what it takes beyond X's and O's and halftime orations for a smart young man ( Ray is 43) to kick a football program out of sick bay and back on its feet. In record time. With maximum efficiency.
He began by asking no special considerations from the Kentucky administration other than his long-term contract (fat enough to make him leave Notre Dame) and the right to make his own television deal. Dean W. L. Matthews, the secretary of the Kentucky Athletic Board, said Ray answered questions as if he had been prepped on what officials wanted to hear: no, he didn't care to have his athletes closeted in one dormitory; yes, he thought there were good football players in Kentucky (which has only 163 high schools with football programs, by far the smallest number in the SEC), but not enough of them to completely ignore the feeding grounds in such preserves as Pennsylvania and Ohio; no, he did not want academic requirements altered to aid recruiting; yes, he knew Kentucky was big for basketball (an old excuse for losing football coaches) but it could be big for football, too.
"He said he could solve our problems without changing our circumstances," said Dean Matthews. "He didn't talk of a three-year plan or a four-year plan. He talked of right now, of today. The reason is obvious enough when you think about it: he didn't want to discourage anybody. Some smart coaches aren't very smart about that sort of thing. They talk about three years from now, and the juniors and seniors are discouraged before they suit up."
Finding his facilities and those of his athletes drab and cluttered, Ray ordered a grand sweepup. He cataloged films, set records in order. He painted everything in sight: he brightened, he shined, he polished. He hustled for donations. He put down a Wildcat blue-and-white shaggy rug in his office, and carpeting in the locker rooms, and he put up signs (MAKE YOUR OPPONENT FEAR YOU—AND RESPECT YOU. TAKE THE I'M OUT AND ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE). He ordered newer, lighter, more streamlined uniforms. He commissioned a new painting of the official Wildcat mascot because the old one looked "too sweet." He put in stereo tape decks for the coaches and players, a VIP lounge in an unused old corner of the press box. He arranged for cars for each member of his staff, a yellow Camaro with four-on-the-floor for Publicist Rice "so they can see you coming."
He got around. In 10 months he filled 96 speaking engagements—before Elks, alumni groups, Boys' Clubs, anybody who wanted to hear about Kentucky football. Sometimes he spoke three times in a day, grinding on those vocal cords, hoarsing his message across. He brought his secretary, Kathy Schuler, from South Bend, to keep the wheels going, and his assistant administrator and onetime high school and college coach, Frank Ham, to plot his social course. Once when he was exhausted from the routine he came home to still another luncheon that Ham had accepted for him, and he balked. "Well, hell, John, you gotta eat somewhere," said Ham. Ray kept the appointment.
He influenced people, big people. "He knows the hornets from the flies," said an admiring Dan Chandler, Happy Chandler's lawyer son. "Almost instinctively he knows the hornets from the flies. It wasn't long before he had the hornets flying around him. Why? You'd have to open up his rib cage to find that out. Some got it, some don't."