If the University of Kentucky offers its football coaching job to Jerry Claiborne, he will take it. This is not a news report. This is common sense. The Kentucky job is worth nearly $200,000 a year, twice what Claiborne makes at Maryland. That loot is evidence of a more important factor in Claiborne's decision-making process: Kentucky is an empire waiting for an emperor.
Like any coach who worships Bear Bryant, Jerry Claiborne believes the Bear's way is The Way. Jerry played for Bryant in the late 1940s, when Kentucky was a football power so mighty it played in the Orange, Cotton and Sugar bowl games in successive years. Jerry coached for Bryant at Kentucky and Texas A&M. Wherever Jerry went, he wanted what Bryant created at Alabama: an empire, everlasting.
Because this is a metropolitan area of more than 3 million, with professional sports competing for the customers' money and attention, not even Bear Bryant could do at College Park what he has done at Tuscaloosa. Of the top 20 teams in the latest college football rankings, only five are in cities with pro football. Of those five, only Southern California and UCLA are in a city larger than Washington and environs.
College football flourishes as the only game in town. If it weren't for Bryant, everyone would think Tuscaloosa is an elephant disease. Why live in Clemson, S.C., except to wear Tiger paws on your face? With a city's undivided attention, and often an entire state's, a coach can tell a prospect, "Come to Knoxville and you'll live in a great dorm and have a weight room better than the Dolphins'. You'll play in front of 100,000 people every week. You'll be in the paper and on TV. And when you graduate, alums will set you up in business."
Fran Curci, the deposed Kentucky coach, once mentioned, kind of off-handedly, that Nebraska had a wonderful program for its training-table meals. Farmers in the hinterlands contributed sides of beef to the university for express consumption by the football team. Barely had the words moved over the hills and across the bluegrass when there came back the mournful mooing of cows chosen as sacrifices to fatten up Kentucky players.
Had Jerry Claiborne fallen to musing here about meat for the Terrapins' training table, a bureaucrat might have sent him an application for food stamps.
Curci was fired three weeks ago. He said he was told he was fired because of a six-year series of disciplinary problems. At least 18 players were arrested during those years on charges including burglary and rape. In an 11-page handwritten statement after his firing, Curci challenged the university to admit that the real reason was he lost too many games.
He called Kentucky "the graveyard of coaches."
Bryant left Kentucky in 1953. He had taken his team to every major bowl game available. Meanwhile, however, Adolph Rupp's basketball team won three national championships in the previous five years. Bryant said, "When they had a banquet and gave Adolph a Cadillac and me a cigarette lighter, I knew it was time to move on."
The hyperbole is justified. Basketball is the heartbeat of Kentucky. Football forever will be second. Yet calling the football job a "graveyard" is mistake.
It is no graveyard when a coach keeps his job for five years after the NCAA charges football with more than 100 violations, including one allegation that players were paid according to weekly performance. Nor is it a graveyard when 38,000 fans follow the team to a bowl game, as Kentuckians did in '76. In no graveyard does a team go 10-1 with top-10 ranking, as Kentucky did in '77.
Even in the years since, when Curci's teams went 4-6-1, 5-6, 3-8 and 3-8, the loyal customers filled Kentucky's stadium every week, a 58,000-ticket sellout.
As much as Kentuckians love basketball, they yet give football all the attention any coach reasonably could ask. It is not the best coaching job in America, certainly, because Kentucky high school football is poor. And because Kentucky is the northernmost member of the Southeastern Conference, it can't recruit well in the South and must compete with the Big Ten in the Midwest.
That is a situation with which Claiborne is painfully familiar, for as the northernmost member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, in a state notorious for the low quality of its high school football, Maryland must compete with the other big shots for players from Pennsylvania and the East Coast megalopolis.
If Kentucky offers him the job, Claiborne will take it for another reason beyond wanting an empire in which all he need do is ask and it will be given.
He simply has run out the string here. Maryland has been as good as it will ever be. There is nothing left. In 10 years here, Claiborne has proven that Maryland is good enough to compete in the ACC but not good enough to stay in the top 10 consistently.
His record here is good: 77-37-3.
It also is misleading.
Upon his arrival in 1972, the ACC was a pitifully weak league. With strong recruiting early and a weightlifting program that was revolutionary to a conference dedicated to basketball, Claiborne produced teams that early on won 20 straight ACC games. His success prompted other ACC teams to improve. Since the 20-game winning streak ended, Maryland is 19-8-1 in the league.
Outside the ACC, Claiborne's teams are 32-26-2. Not terrible, not great. Against Penn State, the best team consistently on his schedule, Claiborne is 0-8. Against Southeastern Conference teams, he is 4-9-1. In bowl games, he is 2-5.
This season was his worst at Maryland, 4-6-1, with an 0-4-1 record outside the league.
Which is one more reason for taking a new job in a new place. As Bryant said, there comes a time to move on. If you can move on for a $200,000 job, that's nice moving.