(Editor's Note: Dr. Vic Adams of Middlesboro is a former Kentucky Wildcat football player who starred for head coach Jerry Claiborne as a defensive guard during the late 1980s. A three-year starter at UK, Adams writes about Claiborne, who later was inducted into College Football Hall of Fame in 2000, and the big influence the coach had on him and the other players about life in general. See photos of Claiborne and Adams elsewhere on the front page.)
By Vic Adams
It doesn’t feel like it’s been over 25 years since I played my last down for the Blue and White. I don’t feel that old.
However, I do have to keep reminding myself that I have two grown sons, Tyler and Hunter, who have families of their own now. I’ve been through the normal identity stages in life. Many of you will understand what I mean when I say I started out as Jim and Kay Adams’ son, then came into my own as Vic the football player. Later in life, I became Tyler and Hunter’s Dad and husband of Dee Dee.
And I now have been promoted to the highest position in the land, “I’m Papaw” to my grandsons, Case and Gatlin. Now, I didn’t exactly want to be Papaw. I’m way too cool to be a Papaw. I was thinking something like “GPOP” or maybe Papa Vic, something GQish if you will, something I could put on the back of a T-shirt and wear to ballgames in the future. As many times as I would look into Case’s eyes and say “GPOP," he would answer back with “Papaw.” So Papaw I am. There is no greater feeling in the world. That bond between a father and son, or a father and grandson, is hard to describe. It can be hard sometimes to put into words the admiration for people we cross paths with throughout life.
For many people, it may have been a teacher, a neighbor, a friend or maybe their pastor. For many of us who had the opportunity to play for the late Jerry Claiborne, “Coach” as we called him, we share an admiration that’s not too difficult to explain.
Late last month (September 24) marked 14 years since Coach went home. He passed away from a heart attack due to complications from abdominal surgery. His native Hopkinsville and the state of Kentucky lost a great man. Don’t take this the wrong way, but the way he died is really not important at this point, but how he lived is what’s most important. He was a man of integrity and strong moral values that we don’t see often enough in today’s sports venues.
Coach was the type of man that any person would be proud to call a friend and mentor. He made sure that we conducted ourselves as responsible young men, often reminding us that we represented not only the University but the entire state of Kentucky when we traveled to stadiums around the country. We always traveled in “a suit of clothes” as he called them. Coach Claiborne would say, “Men, you don’t get on that bus without a proper suit of clothes on, and make sure you don’t forget your tie." The coach often would make that comment to us during every Thursday evening in a pre-road trip meeting.
It didn’t take Coach long to win over my mother. Kay-Kay, as she was affectionately known, had earlier wanted to go to the University of Kentucky way back. Her father, my grandfather, being a die-hard University of Tennessee fan, would have nothing of his baby girl going north to Lexington.
While I was being recruited by several big-name schools, she frequently offered her advice to me about where I should pursue my college education. She would often begin the conversation with, “Vic, you should go where your heart leads you……but if I were you I would go to Kentucky and play for a strong Christian man.” Mom always finished that sentence with tear running down her cheek. My dad would always offer up a little chuckle at that exchange between mother and son.
In the few brief conversations she had with Coach during my recruiting process, she immediately knew he was genuine. She often would wait on Coach to come out of the locker room to offer up congratulations, or simply a hug around the neck, whatever the situation warranted. And she always thanked him for “doing things right,” and taking care of her baby boy.
Jerry Claiborne was an old school coach who knew just how much “honey and vinegar” to give a player to get the most out of him. And if you made a mistake, Coach had a uncanny ability to walk up to you and put his arm around your neck, and talk to you in a way that you didn’t really know if he just jumped on you or praised you, but you know what you needed to do.
Coach treated everyone firm but fair. A fierce competitor, just ask anyone who dared to enter the racquetball courts at the Nutter Center (on campus) for a “friendly” game with Coach. I left that court many times with strawberry bruises on my backside. “Don’t ever look back, Vic Adams,” Coach would say. “You don’t want a shot to the face."
As much as he prepared his players for battle on the gridiron, he prepared us more for life after football. Many of the programs that Coach Claiborne started or fully supported at Kentucky with regard to academics have been replicated at many colleges and universities across the country.
During his career, he coached four Academic All-Americans and 87 Academic All-SEC players. That alone speaks volumes. I take great pleasure in scrolling through the “Former UK Football players” Facebook page and reading many of my former teammates' successes in life. Many are serving as pillars in their communities in careers as doctors, lawyers, educators and coaches, just to name a few.
Coach prepared us for that by instilling us that we were students first and athletes second. Telling us to take care of the little things in life and the big things would take care of themselves. Whenever a group of us “Jerry’s Kids” get together, the topic of discussion often ends up about Coach and our fond memories of him. Every meeting, every practice, every postgame talk always ended with him telling us to “Do right, do your best, and you're a winner."
Coach wanted us to live our lives that way, just like he lived his life, always doing the right thing, always doing his best……he went out a winner.
Dr. Vic Adams is a Vice-President at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College in his hometown of Middlesboro. He resides on the family farm with his wife Dee Dee and enjoys hunting, fishing and cheering on his Kentucky Wildcats. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @vicadams1.