As a group of sportswriters landed at the Lexington airport last month, one of them jokingly remarked that it would probably be easier to fly to Eddyville -- home of the state prison -- to find athletes from the University of Kentucky.
One of the writers printed the remark. Kentucky football Coach Fran Curci was not amused and has not talked to the reporter since.
Few people on this sprawling campus have much sense of humor about the events that have shadowed the football program here for the past five years.
"There is no doubt in my mind that I've been through more than any college coach in America," Curci said today. "It's just been one thing after another. I didn't think it would ever stop."
There is a lull now. There have been no calamites since last spring when eight football players were accused of raping the 19-year-old daughter of a professor. But the problems have taken their toll, turning Curci's program from dynamite to decimated.
The rape charges against the players eventually were dropped but all eight were suspended for this season by Curci.
Events dating back to 1975 that have plagued the Wildcats include a murder-kidnapping in which a former Kentucky player was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison -- thus the Eddyville joke -- and accusations of drug dealing.
The convicted player was Elmore Stephens, an All-America tight end in 1974. He was charged in 1975 and allegedly tried to use star running back Sonny Collins as his alibi.
When police and the NCAA investigated the incident, they could find no wrongdoing on Collins' part but in 1976 the NCAA concluded its investigation and placed Kentucky on one year's probation beginning in 1977.
Included in the NCAA allegations were charges that a Kentucky alumnus had offered a prospect (Elvis Peacock) a thoroughbred horse to attend Kentucky, that players had been paid by performance and that a player had been set up by alumni in a free apartment.
"All of this wiped out three years of recruiting beginning in 1975," Curci said. "We're trying to put it all behind us but we're also still fighting to recover from it."
When the Wildcats take the field Saturday to play Maryland at 1:30 p.m., there will be only 13 seniors in uniform. Including 1979's recruits and last year's redshirts, there are 40 first year men. In his seventh year as Kentucky coach, Curci is back on square one.
"We're at least two more good recruiting years from getting back to where we were," Curci said. "I don't have any illusions about where we are now. We've got everything you could want to build a program here at Kentucky, but right now we don't have the players. You don't win without players."
The story of Curci and Kentucky football is one of a dream turned into a nightmare. Curci, now 41, came here in 1975 from the University of Miami. He was excited by Kentucky's wealth, its glamor and the new 58,000 seat stadium being opened that fall.
He quickly began to put his program together. In 1974, he had a banner recruiting year. For the first time since Bear Bryant's coaching days (1946-53), basketball players were not the only blue chip athletes migrating to Lexington.
"I remember the feeling we all had was that we wanted to be a part of this, to watch something great grow from the beginning," said Jim Kovach, part of that 1974 class, now a linebacker with the New Orleans Saints. "Coach Curci just seemed to know exactly where he was and where he was going. He impressed a lot of people.
It is easy to see why. A handsome man, whose gray hair makes him look distinguished instead of old, Curci is extemely articulate and charming. His dress is immaculate. He looks like what a successful football coach should look like.
In his second year at Kentucky, playing freshmen like Kovach and future All-America Art Still, Curci led the Wildcats to a 6-5 record, their first winning season in nine years. Then, in 1975, the nightmare started.
"I was just a freshman and I really couldn't understand what was going on," said Mike Shutt, who will start at quarterback Saturday. "All of a sudden, we started hearing about murders and drugs and point shavings.
"It was unbelieveable. Ever since the day I got there there have been problems. But after that first year, nothing was a shock. We were prepared for anything after that."
In the meantime, the team fell apart to a 2-8-1 record. Things looked dark for Kentucky.
"The amazing thing about that period was the way people stuck behind us," Athletic Director Cliff Hagan said. "It's like with a family. In times of trouble, they stick behind you."
The Kentucky loyalists were rewarded the next two seasons when the recruiting class of '74 came into its own. The record in 1976 was 8-4, including a Peach Bowl win, and in 1977, led by Still and 6-foot-5 quarterback Derrick Ramsey, the Wildcats were 10-1 and ranked sixth in the nation. Because of the probation, they could not play in a bowl game.
"I remember during 1976, when we were winning and then going to the Peach Bowl, thinking, 'man, we're on our way now,' " said linebacker Lester Boyd as he finished lunch today in the football team's spacious dining room.
"Then, when we went 10-1 the next year I thought we were going to be the school to beat for a long time to come. But everytime we pop our heads above water and seem to have it made, something else happens. If it isn't one thing it's another. The thing is, we almost have a great program here."
"Almost" is obviously not what Kentucky is looking for. There were some in the state who felt that Curci had tainted the school's good name and should be removed. But a majority seemed to feel that any coach who could produce a 10-1 record should not be let go. The incidents, the probation, were not blamed on Curci, who points out, "Except for Stephens, who wasn't a part of our program at the time of the incident, none of the allegations have ever been substantiated."
Curci was given a new five-year contract this season by Hagan and University President Otis A. Singletary, a football fanatic who plays a major role in all of the school's athletic decision making.
"Fran was given a new contract because most people like his style," Hagan said today. "No one blames him for the problems. And," he added, "we're selling out every home game."
Curci could not have survived last spring's incident and its aftermath if he had not had the 1976 and '77 seasons behind him, according to most people familiar with the program.
Curci's decision to suspend the eight players, all of whom are black, after a grand jury refused to indict them, surprised many, especially since all were front-line players, and five were starters, including Larry McCrimmon, who would have started at quarterback this season.
"None of the boys involved did anything illegal," Curci said, spinning in his swivel chair. "But it happened in my dorm and rules were broken. It was my decision to make based on rules and, also, it was a moral decision. I'd do it again.
"I can't seem to convince my players that athletes are not like regular students. They think they have invisible pills or something when they do something wrong. But they don't. They're in a glass house.
"When an athlete does something wrong, it's a national story. I've had enough of those. I'm tired of them."
Curci sounds bitter as he talks of the past. He speaks in rapid, clipped tones, rarely raising or lowering his voice. He is tired of talking about the past but accepts the fact that he cannot just snap his fingers and make it go away.
"The thing you have to do is avoid those valleys, emotionally," he said. "I don't think I've changed because of what's happened. I hope not. But everything turns out all right if you don't blow your brains out first."