July 31, 2012
I met Fran Curci at the Governor's Cup Luncheon in Simponville last week for the first time. The 74-year-old former coach wasn't afraid to speak up about the football program when asked even though it's been more than 30 years since his time at Kentucky finished.
Curci guided the Wildcats to two of their most successful seasons in history, when UK went 9-3 in 1976 while winning the Peach Bowl and 10-1 in 1977*. In those two years, UK was 11-1 in SEC play.
Joker Phillips was a freshman in 1981, Curci's final year in Lexington. With Phillips struggling entering his third year, Curci was asked if Kentucky could ever get to the point where the team is contending for SEC championships:
"You know, I look back. Honest to god, it was a miracle we were 6-0 in conference (in 1977). We beat LSU, we beat Georgia 33-0. I don't know how that happened! To get back in this league right now, I really don't know. Then you add Missouri and Texas A&M, that's really a lot. It's not even such a money deal. You can compete, but whether you can win it or not, I don't know. That's a big job."
If that's really the case, is it possible the fan expectations are just too high? As Curci says, expectations are a funny thing.
"When I came here (in 1973) the fans didn't expect anything. They were just coming to games because it was something to do on a Saturday. Then we started winning, and once we started winning, they kind of expected us to keep winning, which is hard to do in this league. Right know they're accepting the fact that they're trying as hard as they can. But the SEC championship isn't in the fans' minds right now. If it happens, my god, they'll be all fired up.
"I always look back and tell people, my last year here, the most I ever made financially was $46,000. I look back and say 'My god, if I would have won the conference championship right now, I would have made four or five million dollars. The whole world of sports has just gone crazy. A-Rod is making $30 million and offensive coordinators are making half a million or a million dollars. That's how things have changed. I think that carries over into players. It's big time now."
Curci went 6-16 in his last two years at Kentucky, ending his tenure after the 1981 season. He only coached one more season, in 1991 for the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena Football League.
He's been out of the game for quite a while, but had the following advice for Joker:
"Just keep doing what you're doing. All he can do is try to get the best players he can. One of the things I always wished I could do, I had Sonny Collins and had to go to a split offense and use the veer. I always thought if I could get Derrick Ramsey back there, I would have three backs in the backfield doing straight stuff, playing defense like crazy, make them beat us, control the football. I never had an offense I could say 'This is my offense.' I think really, that's what Joker is doing now as he tries to work guys into his offense and they hope they're the guys who can do their type of offense."
If that's what Joker has to do moving forward, what about the job he's done to this point? Does Curci approve of what he's seen in the first two years?
"I like what he's done with what he's got. You're talking about a killer league. The SEC has become so dominant in all phases in sports. Now I hear they want to open up their own TV network which is going to go from a hundred million dollars to a billion dollars! They're going to keep getting the kids that want to come play. You're in that league and if you're in that league, you've got to get the same players as everyone else is getting and that's where Kentucky has really got to pick it up."
*UK won the SEC in 1976 by going 5-1 in the league, but was ineligible for the conference championship and a bowl game in 1977 because of NCAA sanctions.