Another Era Ends
Former Wildcat
Jeff Zurcher
reflects on....

Photo by Davie Coyle

I don't remember the date. I don't remember the score. All I remember was a feeling of failure.

Coach was solemn, as a standard. But this time, he was more - or worse. We sensed this was so as he strode into the sickening yellow locker room to speak to us. And for the first time, we all felt personally and collectively responsible for the funeral-like feeling in the air.

It was 1996, and the Kentucky football team had just been beaten badly, again. This game, we had fallen victim of the Louisiana State Tigers. Baton Rouge is a tough place to win, but it is an even tougher place to lose. LSU fans, a good many drunk on bourbon, are as a rule obnoxious and doubly merciless to the losing team, especially when it is the visiting opponent.

But this night, no one was harder on us than ourselves. For we knew that we had not only lost the game but had also lost Bill Curry's job at the University of Kentucky.

We had heard the rumors, and we understood. We knew that an ultimatum had been issued, whether explicitly or not. We had to win all of our remaining games or else coach Curry and his staff were gone.

The media, and practically everyone else outside of the team, was blaming that staff for the program's demise. But the players, by that point, felt differently. We believed that we, not the coaches, were responsible for all the losses. We had pride-that's one thing the game of football forces you to have.

And that pride, ironically, forced our heads down even further when coach Curry walked into the locker room. The LSU game was our first chance to prove his worth through our play, and we failed miserably-failed for a lack of execution, talent, and some combination of both. And, even though there would be four more games that season, there would be no second chances; we had sealed the deal.

But we certainly didn't falter for a lack of desire. We were emotional about winning that game, because we wanted to win it for him. And so we were consequently equally emotional when we didn't.

I can't remember what coach Curry said when he addressed the team. I can recall sharing a painful, remorseful feeling with him and the rest of the team, though. We all knew it was the end of an era, but no one knew what to expect next.

Quarterback Controversy #1

I hated it then, but when I look back now, I realize that the University did the right thing in announcing after the LSU game that coach Curry would be fired following the 1996 season. Bill Curry was made a lame duck, but UK now had the license it needed in order to properly search for his replacement-and to make sure that replacement was installed in time for the all-important off-season.

Still, that replacement wasn't installed quickly enough for us players, and we also ended up feeling rather ducky for the few weeks we were without a head coach. Tensions rose as time wore on.

One afternoon, the seniors called a team meeting in Nutter Training Center to talk about the status of the team, which was unknown, which was bad.

As we underclassmen filed into the room, a group of seniors were already standing at the front of it. Once everyone was seated, this group asked the rest of the seniors to line up with them and face the rest of the team, which all of them did, but some did very reluctantly.

From there, it got ugly. One of the seniors on defense used the meeting as a forum to address a personal problem he had with a particular freshman receiver. This caused several other underclassmen to come to the aid of the freshman, and a war of words almost turned into one of fists-some guys literally had to be restrained.

Things eventually calmed, and the same senior again took control of the meeting. This time, though, he was calling for unity. I remember him saying that he was the "captain of this ship," meaning that this was his team. His first act as self-proclaimed captain was to draw a line in the sand. He asked for everyone who was with him to pledge allegiance to a football program in the midst of a sea of unknown. Those who did not wish to join him on this voyage were vehemently encouraged to "get the hell out the way."

He went on to say that there would be no questions asked of and no hard feelings toward the guys who desired to leave. All he wanted was for them to be men enough to stand up and immediately go-because we were struggling to stay afloat and couldn't afford to carry any dead weight, even for one more day. No one left.

All of us knew that he was referring to, primarily, Tim Couch. Couch had been wrongly used by coach Curry and was, justifiably, rumored to be contemplating transferring, which a few of the seniors begrudged. Couch was going to wait until we found out about the new coach to make his decision.

To better understand Coach Mumme's tenure, one must know about these two anecdotes from the appendix of Kentucky football history. For these two tell about the kind of vessel that coach Mumme was inheriting: one that was loyal to coach Curry, burdened with guilt about his dismissal, and that was also somewhat internally divided. His job would not be easy.

It is hard to write about a former coach, especially when the sport he coached is football. The game, inherently, is so emotional that objectivity is usually an anomaly.

I respect coach Mumme because he was my coach; I believe coaches should be respected. I got along fine with him, and I learned from him in several capacities. Plus, I valued the hard work he had done and dues he had paid in order to get to UK. I believe he therefore rewarded others who had also worked hard to get there and who began paying their dues upon arrival.

Coach Mumme rewarded me with a chance, whereas other coaches didn't, and for that I will always be grateful; that chance, in many ways, changed my life. He likewise gave many other players chances that they wouldn't have gotten otherwise, and for that I will always commend him. But, he also withheld or revoked chances from some that deserved to have them, and for that I will always be curious, at the least.

And there are other things that he did which I didn't appreciate nor understand nor could rationalize. But in fairness, we all do those types of things. We all are mysteries to ourselves and others at various instances in time.

Coach, at his best, embodied what UK football needed, and to an extent, what it still needs. Precisely what that embodiment is, however, is an amorphous matter of judgment-depends on who you ask and when. What's indisputable and concrete, though, is that he possessed some form of magic. (But what kind of magic-whether slight of hand, special effects/theatrical, or the genuine black sort-again slips back into the realm of opinion.)

At his worst, he had blatantly undesirable qualities.

What does that mean? Probably that he will be remembered as "human," which is many times not regarded as a compliment. But neither should it be considered derogatory.

He stood at the front of the room behind the podium. It was the first and last time I remember him doing this, acting in such a formal manner. He made a good first impression, there with his wife. He seemed humble and homely, as he felt us out and we did him. Yet he was also eager and effervescent, as he offered his hope for our future.

What didn't he believe in? Practices that lasted more than two hours, hitting in practice, and pages of rules. In fact, he scribbled on the white board to his left the solitary team law: don't do anything to embarrass the team. On the board to his right, he chose-purposefully, he said-a blue marker, and wrote God, under that, family, under that, team. These were things he said he believed in, in order of importance. And these were the three things represented in the stripes on the newly-designed UK helmet. The thick stripe in the middle stood for God and the thinner ones on either side for family and team.

Other things he believed in were having fun, scoring points (or, excitement), and the phrase "Play the Next Play,"which would become our mantra.

Not too long after that, the meeting adjourned. We were instructed to make an appointment to visit individually with the new coach, something many of us had never experienced under the old coach. And still no one knew what to expect next.

Quarterback Controversy #2

Billy Jack Haskins was probably the most liked and simultaneously the most respected player on the team going into the 1997 off-season. For a quarterback, he was small in stature, medium in skill, but large in courage. He was so tough that he probably put AJAX on his corn flakes instead of sugar. Plus, he was the epitome of pride (the good kind), teamwork, and loyalty.

He was not the quarterback we thought would transfer. And no one wanted to see him go, especially the way he went.

But Billy Jack was the fiercest competitor. And he did the admirable thing-when he couldn't compete any longer, he left. The sad thing was that he wasn't given a chance to fight for his job. The story goes that coach Mumme said to him, in so many words, that he had to either switch positions (to wide receiver) or transfer-this was what was best for the team.

No doubt that having Tim Couch for quarterback was one of the best things ever for UK football. But not having Billy Jack around was one of the worst; he was a winner. Plain and simple, coach did Billy Jack wrong. And a wedge was driven into the team when it badly needed a clamp; not the decision to demote Billy Jack but the manner in which it was made embittered many of the players in Billy Jack's class and also many other guys on the team. And also many media. And also many boosters. And also many alumni.

Many other changes would soon take place. Foremost was that coach Mumme relaxed the team, something we were in need of, with his casual attitude. He was a personable head coach - exercising with us in the weight room, chatting with us in the locker room, and eating with us at the training table. We enjoyed that. Football was fun again. The battleship atmosphere created under coach Curry's stern watch was lifted. In its place was inserted the run-and-gun Air Raid attitude, which helped us win.

And under that run-and-gun theme, speed, not strength, became the new premium. This resulted in a general downsizing trend in personnel, especially on defense: safeties moved to linebackers, linebackers moved to defensive ends, defensive ends moved to defensive tackles, and defensive tackles moved to offense. However, these changes, unlike the ones in the paragraph above, were, at best, questioned by much of the defense. At worst, these changes were resented.

Further resentment resulted from the fact that coach Mumme had, and wanted to have, nothing to do with the defense. Guys felt second rate - not treated differently but valued differently than our buddies on offense.

To his credit, coach Mumme stuck to only what he specialized in: offense. He, for the most part, did not claim to know what was transpiring on defense, or "that side of the ball." However, nor did he claim to worry. But if his unconcerned approach was an attempt at issuing second-hand assurance, it did not work, and might have done the opposite. Further etching into the defense's confidence was coach's not-so-tongue-in-cheek jokes about having to simply outscore the opponents' team because he figured our defense couldn't stop them. Of course, this was largely factual.

But, in pleading a case for the defense and its coaches, one reason the defense was so giving with points was because the offense was equally giving with turnovers. Sure, guys on defense got angry when the offense gave it up-but we got over it because those things happen. But what really pissed us off (even when the attempt was successful) was when coach would call for a fourth down conversion deep in our own territory instead of playing the game of field position.

I would like to see a stat showing how many of our opponents' scoring drives started inside our 50-yard line.

(part two in next week's Sportsspeak)