"This must be what God looks like." - George Blanda
In 1946, Paul "Bear" Bryant arrived in Lexington, Kentucky and was greeted by a mob of ecstatic students. Just 33-years-old, Coach Bryant had already won acclaim for turning around a moribund Maryland program in a single season and hopes were high he could repeat the feat for the Wildcats.
But to describe the Wildcat football program as the time as "moribund" would be an act of kindness. In the decade prior to Coach Bryant’s arrival, Kentucky has amassed a woeful 36-46-4 record that included a meager five wins in the Southeastern Conference. The former standout end from the University of Alabama proved to be the right man for the job. Over the next eight years Coach Bryant led the Wildcats eight winning seasons, four bowl games and a Southeast Conference title in 1950.
This weekend, a reunion of Coach Bryant’s Kentucky players will be held in Lexington with at least 30 of "Bear's Boys" planning to attend the two day event. The reunions have been held every two or three years since 1983.
Those players were the key to Coach Bryant’s success at Kentucky. He emphasized recruiting from the start, scouring Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania for the best players. These forays garnered standouts like future NFL hall-of-famer George Blanda and future College Football hall-of-famer Babe Parilli both of whom plan to attend this year’s reunion. (Despite his considerable success, Coach Bryant couldn't sway future NFL legend and Alabama native Bart Starr from heading to Tuscaloosa to play for his own alma mater.)
The 1950 ended with Kentucky’s surprise 13-7 win over Bud Wilkinson's dominant Oklahoma squad in the Sugar Bowl. Officially the Sooners garnered the National Championship but the UK athletics website still notes the Wildcats are one of four teams with a claim to that title. Three years later Coach Bryant left Lexington after the famous "lighter" incident that underscored the competitive tension between Coach Bryant and the Wildcats’ legendary basketball coach Aldoph Rupp.
"The trouble was we were too much alike, and he wanted basketball No. 1 and I wanted football No. 1," Coach Bryant said in a 1966 Sports Illustrated interview. "In an environment like that one or the other has to go."
So in 1953 Coach Bryant left for College Station. And proceeded to build another football powerhouse while he waited for mama to call.