As the father of two teenagers, I can attest to the fact that the sands of time pass far too quickly through the hourglass. My daughter will get her driver’s permit in a couple of weeks (Lexington drivers–consider yourself warned), though it doesn’t seem that long ago that we were dropping her off for her first day of kindergarten. I guess it’s just the routine of life–work, sleep, with a little bit of play thrown in on occasion–that lulls us into this sense that time is standing still. One year fades into another, but sooner or later you realize that a decade has passed. Or two.
Or, as in the case of time since last beating Tennessee, TWENTY SEVEN YEARS. When the Cats knocked off the Vols in Knoxville in 1984, it was certainly a great win over a bitter rival. But its occurence was not earth-shattering. The Cats victory that day gave them 23 in the series to the Vols’ 48 (along with 9 ties). The series already belonged to the Vols, but not to a ridiculous extent. To that point, on average every Wildcat that played for four years would experience a win against Tennessee. They may get the best of us more often, but every few years the boys in blue would get to hoist the beer barrel trophy after a victory.
I wasn’t in Neyland Stadium in 1984, and in 1981 (when the Cats last tasted victory over the Vols at home) I had not yet become a regular attender of Kentucky football games. So you can imagine my excitement in 1987 when the Cats, down by four late in the fourth quarter, had first and goal at the five with superstar Mark Higgs in the backfield. I was going to see, for the first time with my own eyes, a Kentucky victory over the Vols.
Four plays later (each, as I recall, dive plays up the middle by Higgs), the Cats were denied the end zone and the Vols left Commonwealth with a modest three game winning streak. Not to worry: the Cats would have another shot next year.
But the Vols won at home in 1988, then in Lexington again in 1989, and before you know it the losing had become far too routine. Seasons came and seasons went, and suddenly the streak had stretched to ten games. Then fifteen. Then twenty.
Along the way, there were years when the losses made complete sense. After all, Tee Martin’s squad won a national title in 1998. And even though the Cats were blessed with homegrown talents Tim Couch and Craig Yeast, their years in Lexington unfortunately came at the same time a young man named Manning was under center for the Vols.
But Tennessee had some down years during the stretch as well, and at some point the law of averages should have dropped a win in the Cats column. Seven times the margin of victory was less than seven points, but each time the Vols came out on top.
Somewhere along the way, I had become numb to the losses. Ending the regular season with a loss had essentially become a foregone conclusion. But then came the teams of Woodson, Burton, Woodyard, Tamme, Johnson, Little and company. They were skilled athletes, but more importantly they brought about a change in attitude for Wildcat football. Surely these guys would be the ones to end the streak.
The task would not be easy, as the Vols were pretty solid during those years as well. But in 2007 the Cats had proven themselves to be a legitimate force, knocking off #1 and eventual national champion LSU in an epic three-overtime battle. Down three late in regulation to the Vols, I was convinced the Cats would cap off their careers in fairy tale fashion with a touchdown pass from Elizabethtown’s Woodson to Louisville’s Burton and end the madness. Alas, the pass sailed just beyond Burton’s reach, the Cats kicked a field goal to send the game into overtime. By the time the fourth extra period had concluded, the result was the same as it had been the previous 22 seasons.
Tennessee football then went on a decline while Kentucky football became synonymous with one word: Cobb. Surely this young man, plucked from the shadows of Neyland Stadium, would bring us our elusive victory. But even three years of the Legend were unable to yield a victory.
The morning of the game in 2009, a childhood friend of mind (knowing full well how to push my buttons) suggested that I should re-create the beer barrel that had been presented to the winning team for many seasons until a tragic alcohol-related car crash involving two UK players ended the tradition in 1998. He thought that maybe it could bring some much-needed luck which would lead to a Wildcat victory.
My son and I accepted the challenge, and by noon we had created our barrel with two hard plastic half barrels from Home Depot and rolls of blue, orange and white duct tape. We proudly carried the barrel to the CatWalk and around the stadium before the game. This would end the streak, for sure.
By the end of the night, the Cats had lost for the 25th consecutive time–once again in overtime. Undaunted, we brought the barrel to Knoxville with us last season. It never left my car.
Saturday morning the barrel came with us again to Commonwealth. By now we had wondered if our barrel, intended to bring good luck, had actually had the opposite effect. The Legend of Cobb wasn’t able to bring us a win. How in the world could we win today, with our first AND second string quarterbacks out?
I had convinced myself in 2007 that the perfect storyline would be Woodson to Burton. In ’09 and ’10, I was certain it would be the kid from Alcoa taking final revenge on the school that didn’t offer him a scholarship.
I doubt even Hollywood would have accepted the notion that a 26 year losing streak could come to an end with a senior wide receiver playing quarterback for the first time since high school, throwing only six passes the entire day, and scrambling for 124 yards. It was just too ridiculous a notion. And therein was its beauty.
After the game, I stuck around to thank the seniors for bringing Kentucky fans the victory we had coveted for more than a quarter century. With my homemade barrel in hand, I asked a few of them if they would mind posing for a photo with my makeshift trophy. Their reactions were varied, from Ryan Tydlacka’s “Oh, man! That is AWESOME!” to Matt Roark’s “Ya know, I saw you with that from the bus and I didn’t know what the (heck) it was.” But each obliged my request, and provided my son and me with some great snapshots from a memorable and historic day.
So to Matt Roark, his fellow seniors, and all the Wildcats on this 2011 squad, thank you. I know the final record was far short of what we all wanted, but you did something no other Kentucky team had done since 1984. And that feat alone has made each of you a Wildcat Legend.