With UK making its first post-season appearance since 2010 in Jacksonville’s Taxslayer Bowl (formerly Gator Bowl) on Saturday, Dec. 31, it once again brought back memories about some of the football Wildcats’ major bowl games appearing over 60 years ago when legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant was coaching.
While I have discussed this before in previous columns many years ago, I still believe you’d enjoy a little bit of UK football history this time of the year. I have a couple of nostalgia items -- an old 1952 Cotton Bowl ticket priced at $4.80 (this same lower-level seat now costs around $150) and a black-and-white photograph of the Cotton Bowl stadium in Dallas. These items are something that I’ll always cherish for the rest of my life. The old yellow-green ticket stub and photograph had belonged to my paternal grandfather, a businessman who loved to travel and watch the Wildcats on the road during the pre-interstate highway days.
And a quick look on eBay shows the 1952 ticket stub is worth something to the collectors. At this writing, the old tickets were priced anywhere from $58.95 to $175. Wow! It’s certainly difficult to believe they are worth that much, if any.
Anyhow, my grandfather and a friend had journeyed some 850 miles to Dallas to see 15th-ranked Kentucky, which had finished the 1951 regular season with a 7-4 mark, play its third prestigious bowl game in as many years. The Wildcats, led by All-American QB Babe Parilli, captured that Cotton Bowl classic, defeating No. 11 Texas Christian 20-7 on New Year's Day before a large crowd of 75,349 spectators.
Yes, these were the glory football days at UK, which had participated in the Orange Bowl (where it dropped to Santa Clara 21-13) and the Sugar Bowl (where it stunned top-ranked Oklahoma 13-7, snapping the favored Sooners' 31-game winning streak), in the previous two years.
So, as you can tell, the Cats were very good these days.
Bryant's Kentucky teams had posted records of 7-3, 8-3, 5-3-2, 9-3, 11-1, 8-4, 5-4-2 and 7-2-1 during his eight-year stint of 1946 to 1953, including the 1950 national championship team (based on USA Today/Sagarin computer rankings which were reconstructed by using the earlier seasons).
And there weren't very many bowl games back then, either. Unlike today's 41 bowl matchups, there were only eight of them after the 1951 campaign, according to my count (Gator, Tangerine, Rose, Orange, Sugar, Salad, Sun and Cotton bowls). That meant only 16 teams, give or take, went bowling on New Year’s Day in the early 1950s.
Interestingly, the 1952 Cotton Bowl would turn out to be UK's last appearance in a post-season matchup in 25 years. (UK later faced North Carolina in the 1976 Peach Bowl, winning 21-0.)
In stopping Texas Christian in the Cotton Bowl, Kentucky had to rely on two Babe Parilli-to-Emery Clark touchdown strikes along with its defense, which was led by guard Ray Correll.
These three UK standouts were later named to the all-time Cotton Bowl team for the 1937-52 era.
Correll, who was named first-team All-American in 1953, had fond memories of the Cotton Bowl where he was chosen the defensive MVP.
"The bowl game probably had the largest crowd I'd ever played before," Correll once said in a 1978 interview with this columnist. "I made about five (quarterback) sacks in that game. You know, it's a big thing for a lineman."
On Bear Bryant, who later won six national championships at Alabama, Correll said the UK coach was very tough.
“He was very strict,” said Correll in another interview in 1988. “Of course, he set the example for us. He was tough. I can recall one instance where a fellow came in late for a meeting. Coach Bryant says to the young man, ‘Did you know what time the meeting was?’ He said, ‘Yes, sir.’
“Then, Coach Bryant asked, ‘Do you have any excuse?’ The player said, ‘No, sir.’ Coach then walked over and hugged him and said, ‘Young man, if you wait until the meeting is over, we’ll get you home because we brought you up here. If not, we wish you the best.’ After that, I never saw the kid again.
“He (Bryant) did not put up with tardiness. You knew that you had to be on time. Now, if you had a good excuse, he would accept it. He had rules, and sometimes, the players would break them. Sometimes one would drink a beer. But while I was at Kentucky, I never saw a football player drunk. Overall, he expected you to be a gentleman. That’s what he tried to instill into us, to be gentlemen whether it was out on the field or in the classroom. Those grades also had to stay up.”
With many of the bowl games taking place on New Year’s Day during the early days, it’s sure a nice feeling now to see the 2016 Wildcats playing football on New Year’s Eve, facing Georgia Tech in Taxslayer Bowl (at 11 a.m. on ESPN).
Just like the old days.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com Magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.