"You look at the Top 10 in college football. You see Texas No. 1. They've been off a couple years, but it's no surprise to see them back. They belong. You look more and you see Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Michigan. Notre Dame. Those are traditionally great football teams.
"Then, all of a sudden, you see Kentucky.
"Kentucky?" And you say, 'Does Kentucky belong in there? How'd it get there? Will it last?'"
Fran Curci speaking. He's the Kentucky coach. It was 1950 when Kentucky last ranked among the nation's football elite. Bear Bryant was the coach, Babe Parilli the quarterback. For most of three decades since, Kentucky football has been a calamity in cleats.
No more, Winner of the Peach Bowl last season. Kentucky takes a 6-1 won-lost record into Saturday night's game here with Virginia Tech. It has accomplished the unheard-of feat of winning at Penn State, at LSU and at Georgia - by a total score of 90-33. Kentucky belongs. Its defense is as gentle as an avalanche; its offense no more pushy than a tidal wave.
"I get a much kick out of looking in the ratings for the schools behind us," Curci said. "Penn State, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Nebraska. Until they beat Southern Cal., Notre Dame - Notre Dame! - was behind us. To be ahead of those people is unbelievable."
This is Kentucky, where Adolph Rupp invented basketball. Bryant says the good folks of the Bluegrass once gave him a cigarette lighter in thanks for taking Kentucky to three straight bowl games. For Rupp, the folks got up a Cadillac. So Bryant quit and went ot Texas A&M. That was in 1953.
With Bryant leftovers, the new coach, a football genius named Blanton Collier, won seven games his first season, 1954. The next time Kentucky came disaster, rock bottom arriving in 1975, Curci's second season.
Kentucy was the stage for a bizarre drama with all the elements of a lurid novel. If Harold Robbins wrote sports, he'd have invented Kentucky '75: A kidnap-murder, allegations of drug sales and use, rumors of point-shaving, known connections of players and big-money types that included beautiful women.
An All-America tight end on Curci's first Kentucky team was convicted on the kidnap-murder charge. The university reprimanded an unannounced number of football players for the use of marijuana.
Police said their investigation showed no point-shaving. The team's star running back admitted to taking a trip to Las Vegas with a Kentucky fan whom police identified as a well-known local gambler.
While the team stumbled to a 2-2-1 record that year, its will destroyed by the going'on, the National Collegiate Athletic Association undertook an investigation that culminated late last year with the announcement that Kentucky had sinned mightily. The NCAA said Kentucky, or its boosters, offered a prospect a thoroughbred racehorse, paid players according to their game performance; set up a player in a free apartment, and much, much more.
For that, Kentucky was put on probation for one year. It cannot appear on television this season, nor can it play in a bowl game.
Kentucky disputed many of the NCAA findings (just as Nevada-Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian would do 18 months later, when a federal judge agreed that the NCAA relied unfairly on hearsay evidence). But Kentucky accepted the punishment, saying the violations involved no palyers on the 1976 team. Everyone on this season's No. 7-rated team, then, is certified honest by NCAA standards.
Their performances on the field this season have certified them as legitimate members of the Top 10. Vince Dooley, the Georgia coach, offers proof enough. After Kentucky beat Georgia, 33-0, last Saturday, Dooley was moved to speak of the erst-while patsies in the same sentence with las year's national champion. Said Dooley: "Pittsburgh handled us pretty good last year in the Sugar Bowl, but not like Kentucky handled us today. They've a great team."
Perhaps, Dooley said, Kentucky is the best in the Southeastern Conference. "The Kentucky team that beat us today is a much better football team than the Alabama team that beat us in Tuscaloosa. We absolutely couldn't do anything."
Because no bowl game is availabe to them, the Kentucky players are left to watch the ratings. "It seems every game is a bowl," said Kentucky's giant quarterback, Derrick Ramsey. "Our ambition is to win as many games as possible, keep winning and go up in the polls. Get some sort of national attention, anyway."
As it happens, Kentucky does not play Alabama this season. As it also happens, the Alabama coach is the young fellow who started all that excitement at Kentucky some 30 years ago, bear Bryant.
"The stats show we're close," Curci said of an Alabama-Kentucky comparison. "But he probably doesn't want to play us to find out. I wouldn't. We're a good, solid football team playing well right now."
The best, most solid players are Ramsey and Art Still, high school teammates in Camden, N.J. who left the pollution for the Bluegrass four year ago.
Ramsey is 6-foot-k, 225, a power runner who passes adequately. He has accounted for 884 yard so far. "Derrick is a superior athlete who want to maul you." Curci said. "In today's pro offense with quarterbacks breaking out of the pocket, he a biger Terry Bradshaw.
Still is 5-foot-7, 250, a defensive end who Curci says will be one of the first four players drafted by the pros. "He's unbelievably super," Curci said. "He can be a linebacker, a down man, whatever you need."
This has been an amazing year for Kentucky. Of the 22 men who started the season opener, 10 have been replaced because they're injured. Yet the defense has given up less than 12 points a game - "It's been sensational," Curci said - and the offense, running from an old-fashioned "full house" backfield, is scoring 22 points a game.
Curci isn't ready, however, to say Kentucky is locked into the Top 10 forever. "The realism of this phenomenal year is that it might not last. We are not at the point to be consistent. Time. We have to pass the test of time."