By Jamie H. Vaught
The Ole Ball Coach is coming to town this weekend.
Legendary Steve Spurrier will be coaching his 3-2 Gamecocks -- who are coming off a heartbreaking 21-20 home loss to Missouri -- against the 3-1 Wildcats on Saturday night in Lexington. Things aren't going very well in the South Carolina camp as his team is now unranked after high preseason Top 10 expectations.
But the 69-year-old coach, who once guided Florida to the 1996 national title, has had a lot of success in beating the Wildcats over the years. Spurrier has a career coaching record of 20-1 against the Wildcats.
Kentucky's lone victory was in 2010 when Joker Phillips-coached Cats stunned the 10th-ranked Gamecocks 31-28 before a pro-UK crowd of nearly 68,000.
Now in his 25th season as the head coach in college football, including three years at Duke, Spurrier is SEC's second-winningest coach with 202 overall victories (at UF and USC) behind No. 1 Paul "Bear" Bryant, who had 292 wins as the SEC coach while at Kentucky and Alabama. Georgia's Vince Dooley is third with 201 victories.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops knows Spurrier's club is going to be tough to beat. Last year South Carolina defeated Stoops' troops 35-28 in Columbia without injured defensive star Jadeveon Clowney, who later became NFL's No. 1 overall draft pick in 2014.
"Coach Spurrier is a fantastic coach that's won a bunch of ball games, always find ways to move the football, and his teams always play with a lot of confidence and a lot of toughness," said Stoops Saturday moments after leading the Wildcats to a 17-7 win over Vanderbilt.
"And it will be a real challenge. He's been there a long time building that program to where they're a contender in the SEC every year, and we'll be up for a real challenge."
For the last three years, Spurrier's Gamecocks have posted identical records of 11-2.
As a sportswriter, I have a special memory of him but I'm pretty positive the Ole Ball Coach wouldn't remember me at all.
It was during the 1990 season when Spurrier, in his first year at UF, took the Gators to Lexington and faced first-year Kentucky coach Bill Curry's squad for a mid-November date. Florida, at the time, was ineligible for the SEC title and post-season bowl due to NCAA sanctions but finished with a very good 9-2 mark.
And after Florida had dominated UK 47-15, I luckily saw Spurrier sitting down alone in a so-called hallway tunnel under the Commonwealth Stadium seats. He had just finished his obligatory post-game press conference with the media.
While he was waiting for his radio show, I politely asked if then 45-year-old coach had time for a quick interview which was published in The Cats' Pause weekly magazine. Here are some tidbits from the interview:
---Spurrier was in favor of college football playoffs (and that was 24 years ago).
---He was kind of disappointed when two of UF's rivals Florida State and Miami turned down the SEC invitation to join the conference.
---Spurrier added he was "lucky" to be coaching at his alma mater (where he had won the Heisman Trophy as the Gator QB).
---He was having "a whole lot more fun" in his first season as the Gator boss than when he played football at Florida during the mid-1960s.
Personally, I'm hoping for another exclusive interview with the Ole Ball Coach on Saturday night but don't bet on it and I probably won't even try.
And he may be in a bad humor anyway especially if the Wildcats do find a way to capture another SEC victory after stopping his Gamecocks.
That will suit me just fine without an exclusive Spurrier interview.
* * *
During the first half of Saturday's Kentucky-Vanderbilt game, it was awfully nice to see UK recognize a group of African-American football players from the late 1960s who had played a key role in SEC's history in breaking the color barrier. And they had a loud ovation from a crowd of nearly 57,000.
Honored were Nate Northington, Wilbert Hackett, Houston Hogg and the late Greg Page (who was represented by his brother Mel). They were Kentucky's first four black football players.
* * *
Kentucky defensive star Alvin "Bud" Dupree, a senior from Irwinton, Georgia, has a good description of Mark Stoops, who comes from a defensive background.
"Coach Stoops is a fiery guy," said Dupree, who had team's second-leading five tackles and 1.5 sacks against Vanderbilt. "He makes you believe even when sometimes some people don’t believe in themselves. He will make you believe in yourself."
Dupree, a 6-4, 264-pounder who made his team-high 30th career start, is the SEC's active career sack leader with 17.5 sacks in his four-year career.
* * *
My quick forecast for the South Carolina-Kentucky contest: UK by 3 (as opposed to my preseason forecast with USC winning by 12).
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. The editor of KySportsStyle360.com online magazine is also a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. Reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle360@gmail.com.