When the University of Kentucky first hired Jerry Claiborne away from Maryland in 1981 to rebuild and reconstruct its roguish football program, there were more than a few difficulties.
The football team was dreadful, and nobody was accusing the players of being honor scouts, either. Frank Hare, a senior linebacker, remembers most of his teammates having a motto: "Skip class, sleep late, save that strength for football."
The program was so awful, Seth Hancock, the Kentucky horseman and booster who runs Claiborne Farms, recalled thinking, "If Jerry Claiborne could come in here, clean up the image right away and go .500, he'd be the greatest thing since sliced bread. Any more than that in the first few years would be just expecting too much."
Sports fans are always delighted when their own expectations -- no matter how modest -- are exceeded. And Claiborne, now in his third year at Kentucky, has already taken the Wildcats further than many people expected.
After an 0-10-1 season the first year, he got Kentucky to a bowl game (Hall of Fame) last year for the first time since 1946. Now, his team is 5-1. The Wildcats were ranked 16th in the nation last week. They are not yet ready to challenge for the Southeastern Conference title -- the toughest league in the college ranks -- as evidenced by their 36-10 home-field loss to Louisiana State on Saturday.
But that does not diminish what Claiborne has accomplished in the eyes of those who knew what the program was -- or wasn't -- before he replaced Fran Curci.
"We still don't have the program where we want to get it," Claiborne said Saturday after the game. "We're making progress on everybody (in the SEC), but we still haven't gotten it turned around. We want to be competitive in the SEC, or at least be in the upper echelon. First, we want to get off that bottom rung.
"We haven't quite gotten that mental toughness to produce champions. The toughest thing (about rebuilding) is getting good players and getting the ones who were already (in a losing program) to believe they can win. We're just not there yet, but we're working on it."
That's what the people at UK want to hear. They want to hear that Claiborne repared the relationship between the high school football coaches in Kentucky and the university, for recruiting purposes. They want to hear how so many players (about 30) have B averages, a dramatic improvement over years past.
The people also like hearing most of the things Jerry Claiborne says, particularly his approach to life and football, which are the same thing in the South.
Claiborne came to Maryland after it suffered through seven straight losing seasons and in the next decade won three Atlantic Coast Conference championships, consistently kept his teams in the top 20 and built a record of 77-37-3.
In College Park, he found himself in the middle of two big cities that had pro teams, baseball, football, hockey and basketball. Excitement counted for more than fundamentals. At Maryland, he often was criticized for dull, grind-it-out football.
But in Lexington, he is in his element. He grew up in Hopkinsville, Ky., and went to school at UK. People here love talk about mommas and daddies and church. And they love football teams that play good defense and generally don't fumble. They don't need frills. And Claiborne doesn't offer them.
Mark Wheeler, a tight end Claiborne recruited from Annandale, Va., has noticed the difference between Claiborne's reception at Maryland and Kentucky.
"The people here identify with Coach Claiborne," Wheeler said. "He stands for what they stand for: 'My Old Kentucky Home' and all that. He's a family man, a Kentucky boy. They like that here. They even changed the time of the horse races (Saturday) at Keeneland when the time of the game was moved (for television)."
"I'm terribly impressed with him," Hancock said. "I remember the first time I met him, we had lunch. At Howard Johnson's. Not all this two Bloody Mary stuff and long lunches. He wanted a Coke and grilled cheese sandwich so he could get back to the office and go to work."
Maryland Coach Bobby Ross, who worked as an assistant for Claiborne at Maryland, then replaced him in 1981, seems as excited about Claiborne's success as anyone. Ross was openly bothered when people around Maryland criticized Claiborne after his last Maryland team finished 4-6-1. And Ross predicted Claiborne would successfully rebuild Kentucky.
"I knew it wouldn't be too long; just look at his track record," Ross said, referring to the way Claiborne rebuilt Virginia Tech, then Maryland. "He's been around enough programs to know what has to be done, and I felt that way from Day 1."
One of the first things Claiborne did was let his players know he wouldn't stand for them being as irresponsible as they had been. As Hare said, "He just changed everything. Everything that the old coaching staff did, he did the opposite. He had a football dorm and curfew. He started making us really go to class. At first, nobody wanted to listen to him. We were saying, 'What the hell's that got to do with football?'
"But he wasn't having any of our stuff. If you messed up, you were gone. A couple of people tried him the first year and, boom -- gone. Starters, anybody. People started saying, 'This guy is for real. He ain't putting up with our stuff.' Everybody straightened up. It worked."
Hancock, who said he employs aboout a dozen players every summer at his farm, said the players, "to be honest, didn't have very good attitudes. But since then, the way they've behaved off the field is so much better. It had to come from him."
Claiborne also sent down strict orders that everyone would hit the weight room. "Bigger and stronger," Hancock said. "That's what it takes to compete in the SEC. They averaged 30 pounds per man (stronger) after the first year, and another 20 pounds after the second year."
Claiborne, now 56, was asked why at such an age he would undertake a rebuilding job, especially at his alma mater -- a move that many coaches, like John Majors (Tennessee) and Ray Perkins (Alabama), have found difficult.
"The coaching profession is a dangerous trap, period," Claiborne said. "Why did I do this? Well, I came back here to try and produce a program like we did at the University of Maryland. It's my school, my home. And the people here deserve that."
There were more than 57,000 people in Commonwealth Stadium Saturday to see Kentucky try to stay undefeated against LSU. About that many more will be there Saturday when the Wildcats play Georgia. Wheeler says that two years ago, "we couldn't give away tickets, unless it was to your closest relatives and then only if they had a cheap way to get here."
Kentucky hasn't beaten anybody really special this season: Kent State, Indiana, Tulane, Rutgers and Mississippi State. But Claiborne, the Kentucky people feel, has restored respect to the program. "He's outmanned every week and he's getting us to win," Hare said. "We're no fluke."
"We probably won't be Alabama or Georgia," Hancock said. "But if we can have the same type of program Maryland has; to go to a bowl game every year and maybe, one out of every six or eight years go to a big bowl, that's about what we expect. I was a little skeptical when he was hired. I didn't know if a guy could come in here and build it the way I knew he would try.
"I didn't know if he would get the blocks strong enough to build a real foundation. But you know what? He could make this a pretty damn good football program."