Claiborne's mission: to lift Kentucky off football canvas

In college football, says respected TV analyst and former Arkansas mentor Frank Broyles, few coaches have the enthusiasm or energy to rebuild more than two losing programs. That's one theory, however, that Jerry Claiborne has chosen to ignore.

Claiborne overhauled programs at Virginia Tech and Maryland, and now is working on No. 3 at the University of Kentucky, where a perennially strong basketball team casts a long shadow.

But instead of making headway, the football Wildcats went backward last year in Claiborne's first season at his alma mater, turning in an 0-10-1 record after going 3-8 in 1981. Only Kent State (0-11), Rice (0-11), and Richmond (0-10), were more shamefaced among Division I institutions.

''We were actually worse than I anticipated. I thought we'd win at least three or four ball games,'' Claiborne states frankly.

In looking back, he thinks Kentucky's 23-9 loss to Kansas State in the opener was critical. ''I felt we could have beaten K-State (which went on to play in the Independence Bowl), but we turned the ball over nine times.''

With the team's confidence shot, it was hard to regroup against a Murderers Row of opponents, which included eight bowl teams and a sure ninth if Clemson hadn't been on probation.

And what about this year's schedule? ''We've only got seven bowl teams,'' he laughs.

A Sept. 3 date with Central Michigan, however, may be just the confidence builder Kentucky, trying to snap a five-season losing streak, needs at this point. ''When the players go on the field they have to be thinking about making the play that wins the game instead of worrying about the one that loses it,'' Claiborne explains.

If Kentucky wasn't winning last year, at least it wasn't losing dishonorably or making headlines for wrongdoing. A trail of image-marring incidents at the school preceded Claiborne's arrival - an NCAA probation, point-shaving rumors, and players being charged with felonies. Under Mr. Clean, however, they stopped.

''Kentucky will never go on probation with Jerry Claiborne as coach,'' ABC football commentator Beano Cook once asserted. ''He will not cheat. He'll lose his job before he will cheat.''

He lays down the law to his players too. ''Last year we had to dismiss some players because they didn't want to abide by the rules,'' Jerry observes, ''but the ones we have now understand what we're trying to do.''

Claiborne was brought up believing morals, strong character, and respect for one's elders were important. ''Yes sir and no ma'm'' still own a place in his conversation.

During his first job after college, at Augusta Military Academy in his hometown of Hopkinsville, Ky., he taught the Bible and civics among other subjects. He also has served as a deacon in the Baptist church and been active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

But simply being high-minded doesn't win games, and Claiborne has won his share - 138 in 21 years of head coaching. The high point came at Maryland in 1976, when the Terrapins went undefeated in the regular season.

A keen student who was once selected the outstanding senior in Kentucky's College of Education, Claiborne benefited greatly from having good football teachers along the way, notably Bear Bryant and Frank Broyles. He played defensive back for Bryant in the late 1940s, and was an assistant to him at Kentucky, Texas A&M, and Alabama, and to Broyles at Missouri.

Claiborne's years playing under Bryant were the best in the school's generally lackluster football history. The Wildcats went to the 1950 Orange Bowl in Jerry's senior year, and to the Sugar and Cotton bowls in the seasons following his graduation.

This golden gridiron era occurred with the basketball team prospering too (Adolph Rupp's Wildcats won the 1948 NCAA championship and formed the nucleus of that year's Olympic team). Claiborne sees no reason why, therefore, the football team can't prosper again, even in the rugged Southeastern Conference.

''It's tough. It's going to be a struggle,'' he admits. ''But then again, that's why I came back, to put the program on a level where people can be justly proud.''

The toughest job is selling blue-chip athletes on a rock-bottom program. Fortunately, Claiborne can draw on his own experience, telling them of how he once came to Kentucky during a ''down'' period.

''The main thing youngsters look for is a winning tradition, something we haven't had,'' he says. ''We try to emphasize that it's a question of whether you want to build a tradition or continue one.'' Many, of course, choose the latter, which is why Claiborne lost eight recruits ''we really wanted'' to Michigan, Purdue, and Arkansas last winter.

A conservative, Claiborne still believes a strong running game and solid defense are the twin cornerstones of success. It takes time to build on that basis, however, and one wonders how long he'll be given to show progress.

After all, it's not as though people don't care about football in the Bluegrass State. The Wildcats nearly sell out 58,000-seat Commonwealth Stadium every home game, and two years ago Got. John Y. Brown caused a furor with his efforts to have George Allen replace Fran Curci as coach.

Claiborne's job, then, places him squarely in the state's athletic limelight. But all the pressures and demands of being there haven't eroded his love for the challenge.

Asked if he's ever run out of enthusiasm for coaching, the former president of the American Football Coaches Association replies, ''Not yet, but I think my wife has a couple of times.''

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