Jerry Claiborne is a native son, so the Kentucky commonwealth will give him time. He will need it. His first University of Kentucky football team is now 0-6-1. Six players have left: three by choice, three by no choice.
No place like home, huh? These are tough times in the bluegrass.
Through it all, Jerry Claiborne remains as feisty and as certain as he was during his 10 years as head coach at Virginia Tech and his 10 years as head coach at Maryland. The overall record then was 138-76-5.
Claiborne is not a drastic man. Change comes slowly to him. He still says things like "We gotta rip and snort" and "We just don't have enough lead in our britches." Always the same.
"I haven't changed my philosophies at all," says Claiborne, 54. "Why should I?
"No, I never doubt myself. I'm not saying I don't make mistakes because I do. But I never doubt myself or look back. Something might be gaining on me."
To some, this is just his Kentucky stubbornness. To Jerry Claiborne, it is just common sense. He is an avid reader of Norman Vincent Peale. He is big on motivation. Last week he showed his Wildcats the Washington Redskins 1981 highlight film about a team that lost its first five games, then won eight of 11. Then Kentucky lost to Georgia, 27-14.
He has added discipline here. He has taken the off-the-field wild out of these Wildcats. Now, it's my-way-or-pitch-hay.
"When I first saw Coach Claiborne on TV," says junior defensive back Kerry Baird, "I thought to myself 'Oh no, a military sergeant.' "
"When he first came here," says senior safety Andy Molls, the team captain, "we were afraid to even swear."
Now there is stability. At least, emotionally. Nearly 58,000 customers keep selling out Commonwealth Stadium. There is enough confidence in Claiborne to minimize the grumbling about the possibility of Kentucky's first winless football season.
That's partly because people remember the hardships of the previous regime, when, at the end, the problems multiplied and the victories didn't.
They remember last season when Kentucky finished 3-8 for the second time in a row. This was the finish of the sweet-and-sour Fran Curci regime. It was a nine-year span that included a high of the Peach Bowl win in 1976 and a low of the NCAA probation in 1977 brought about by more than 100 violations, including one allegation that players were paid by performance.
Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown wanted George Allen to replace Curci. The players stood behind Curci. "We tried harder just to embarrass the governor," says Molls.
The job was then offered to Howard Schnellenberger, the coach at Miami, who turned it down. When Claiborne then got the opportunity to come back to his alma mater for an estimated $200,000 per year (including radio and television benefits), he bid adieu to Maryland.
Players who remain from the Curci regime say they enjoyed the night life in recent years. "We were spoiled," Molls says.
Now, their night life is ended at 11 by the Claiborne curfew. Players say they have learned to run red lights and to sprint home to beat the 11 o'clock bed check.
"At night my friends kid me and say, 'It's 10:30, shouldn't you be heading home?' " says senior defensive back Tom Petty.
"At breakfast, you can look in the parking lot to see who got in late by the way the cars are parked on an angle or the way the doors were left open," says Molls.
They are all in one football dorm now. No more offcampus apartments. The hours of visitation in the dorm are limited. This is just as it was at Jerry Claiborne's Maryland. This is football season, after all.
At dinner now, they even say grace.
"When we sat down at dinner last year, we just grabbed for the food," says Molls. "When Coach Claiborne told us to say grace, we just kind of looked at each other. Blank stares. We wondered 'Do we have to do this?' We did it and I think it helps us."
Some players have coped with the rules. Others have not. Offensive lineman Doug Williams and defensive end Steve Willis quit because of a lack of playing time, among other reasons. Tailback John Gay kept saying he wanted to transfer to West Virginia. Claiborne said go ahead. In the fifth week of this season, Gay went.
Chris Dorazio, a little-used offensive guard, was suspended for the season from the team after he was charged with drunk driving on a return from a Sunday squirrel-hunting trip. Tailback Pete Venable, who gained 83 yards in the opener, and defensive back Ty Richmond broke curfew and were likewise sent packing.
Richmond has since transferred to Long Beach State. On the night he was caught, just after preseason two-a-day practices had ended, he stuffed duffle bags in the form of a body under his blankets and jumped out of his dorm window, two stories down. "A lot of guys tried the second-floor window," Richmond says now. "No one dared try the third-floor window."
Richmond's ploy didn't work. He was caught by the random bed check. He returned at 2:30 a.m. "The next day I was gone," he says.
"Coach Claiborne is really hurting the team," Richmond says. "You have to keep your players happy. We're grown men, 19-22 years old. He is like a strict high school coach."
Richmond's, however, is the minority opinion. Players here impersonate Claiborne -- complete with the exaggerated hand claps -- just as those at Maryland did. But, as Petty says, speaking the team consensus, "We think Coach Claiborne's way is the right way."
"When we broke rules last year, the worst that would happen is that we would have to run sprints," says Baird. "I have no sympathy for the guys who are gone. We didn't need them. They knew the rules. We respect Coach Claiborne."
The low point of this season came in the third game, when the Wildcats tied Kansas, 13-13. A Kentucky fumble late in the game cost a victory. Players cried after the game. Quarterback Coach Jerry Eisaman, who has been with Claiborne at Virginia Tech, Maryland and now Kentucky, said, "It was a tie, but it was more like a loss."
The schedule has been tough. Very tough. Five top 20 teams. The latest was last week's loss to Georgia at home. Kentucky had a 14-10 halftime lead. A good start. But no win.
Claiborne says he follows Maryland closely these days, talking to people, reading summaries. Even though a lot of Maryland's current players were recruited by Claiborne, the Kentucky coach says from an office with pictures of Wildcats all about, "Kentucky is my team now, not Fran Curci's team. Maryland is Bobby Ross' team, not mine. That's just the way it is."
Claiborne still says last season's 4-6-1 Maryland team was three fumbled punts away from a bowl game. He says similar things about his Kentucky team now. Only the mistakes this year cost victories, not bowl appearances. Jerry Claiborne hasn't changed.
"It's just the nature of this business," Claiborne says. "It's very competitive. If you don't win, you don't hang around. You're in the public eye."
He still has the Maryland memories. He talks now of the good people he met, about the good players like Randy White and Paul Vellano, about being named NCAA Coach of the Year in 1974 by The Sporting News, about being carried off the field after an 11-0 season in 1976 and about the time in 1975 when the Terrapins first found out they were going to the Gator Bowl. "I thought they would tear apart the airport in Greenville."
He talks just a tad about 1949, when he intercepted nine passes for Bear Bryant's Kentucky team that went to the Orange Bowl and just a bit about the few years he spent as an assistant coach at Kentucky (1952-53).
He says he followed the Kentucky probation problems in the '70s, but says, "I had enough problems of my own then."
Now he is back in the bluegrass, back at home. No place like home, huh?
"We have a lack of talent, but we haven't given up," Claiborne says. "The people of Kentucky deserve a winner. They support this program. I want everybody to know we're on the right track."
Saturday, Kentucky travels to Virginia Tech, the former home, not the real home.
"I want this program to do well more than any other," Claiborne says. "The program was down. The only reason I'm here is because it's home. The mind must think success."