John Ray is more than just a pretty face. He is, for one thing, a throat. He is especially a throat. His voice sounds as though his vocal cords were several sizes too large and that one more word—even a short one of a syllable or two—might complete the inflammation and forever seal him up. It well may be that those carolers of Southeastern Conference football who wrote in their daily columns a few weeks ago that interloper Ray had insulted their intelligence by predicting immediate success (championships, bowl trips) for his Kentucky team will expect that to happen, now that Kentucky has played its first game under Coach Ray. Nothing clams a man as quickly as a 28-point defeat.
This strangling experience came to Ray in the game with Indiana last weekend at Lexington. The Hoosiers, insatiable as well as very good, ran up the score in the second half on the new Coach. No sentimentalists they. Ray himself was the first to admit that in 20 years of coaching football his genius at defense had never been so sorely tried. In fewer words, he never had had a thumping like it: 58-30.
Football theater would have been better served by just the opposite result. John Ray was beloved by all at Notre Dame, where he coached the defense and was Ara Parseghian's right arm. He had turned down nine head-coaching jobs in four years before agreeing to come to Kentucky last December. He had picked through the offers carefully, as one separating an artichoke. In Kentucky he saw something. The response, immediate and pronounced, was mutual. And in 10 short months, he created what one university administrator called a "restored expectation" for Kentucky football, which had been played mostly for laughs since Bear Bryant left in 1954.
Harry Lancaster, the athletic director, introduced Ray around—at banquets, to civic clubs—as "our messiah." The Kentucky players talked in awe of that first night when Ray stood before them, handsome and hard-eyed, and in that spectacularly hoarse voice said, "I'm John Ray. I came here to win."
Happy Chandler, the former Kentucky governor and ex-commissioner of baseball, sampled the public opinion and said he never saw such enthusiasm in 53 years of following Kentucky football. Adolph Rupp, the autocratic Kentucky basketball coach not famous for his affection for Kentucky football coaches ( Rupp always had a thing about staying No. 1), said he was looking forward to the football season for the first time in years.
Rupp, with everyone else in town, took a shine to Ray. He started coming around. He admired Ray's new $1,400 superhandy movie projector and asked Ray where he stole it. "Want one?" said Ray. "I'll take three," said Rupp, smiling. He told Ray he would not mind at all if a few of the football players wanted to come out for basketball.
The Kentucky band delivered a painted scroll, signed by the full membership, pledging its undying support to the new football team and coaching staff. The cheerleaders said they got the largest crowd in history at the bonfire pep rally. The cheerers said they never heard such noise. The Kentucky ticket manager said he never sold more season tickets. The day of the bonfire a coed applied for the team manager's job. She said she was quite willing to go right into the locker room with the players, so devoted to the cause had she become.
The crush for opening-game press-box tickets all but overwhelmed Russell Rice, the publicist, who could not quit marveling at how nice it was to work with the new coach, how available he was, how helpful.
Meanwhile, a Lexington housewife got through on John Ray's private telephone. "Do you realize what you're doing?" she said accusingly. "It's awful what you're doing. You've got all those people going out of their minds trying to buy tickets and there's not enough parking around that stadium as it is."
As the enthusiasm grew, the odds favoring Indiana, a hot Rose Bowl candidate, dropped steadily through the week, from 12 points to 10 to seven and then to five. At the giant pep rally on the Kentucky intramural field, Coach Ray, standing in the glow of the bonfire, eyes flashing, predicted a Kentucky victory. The bigger, faster, more experienced and more plentiful Indiana was pictured as shivering in its boots. At Ray's bidding, the crowd yelled, "We're number one! We're number one!"