LEXINGTON, Ky. — There’s still that longing.
To feel the weight of the pads, but most of all, to feel his teammates on either side of him.
Derrick Ramsey was always in the middle as Kentucky’s quarterback in 1976 — a storied year for a program slim on success. The Wildcats topped the SEC that season, their last conference title, as co-champions with Georgia.
Ramsey, coach Fran Curci and more than 70 members of the 1976 team will once again walk the field at Commonwealth Stadium. As Kentucky and Mississippi State players head to the locker room at halftime in Saturday night’s game, one of the greatest Kentucky teams of all time will be honored.
Ramsey already knows what feeling to expect. Now 59, it happens every time he steps onto the field.
“That weird, ‘OK let’s do it one more time feeling,’” Ramsey said. “What makes that even much more times 100 is when I’m with my guys. Because I know with my guys I’m always going to be OK.”
He pauses for a bit, as if sending his mind back in time.
“One more time,” he said again. “With my guys. With my guys. Just one more time for the Big Blue Nation.”
Then he fast forwards, wondering how the Wildcats can climb back to the peak he and his team reached.
The 1976 season was an oddity. The Wildcats had players like Ramsey, and Art Still, the second overall pick in the 1978 NFL Draft, but they were coming off the harshest of droughts and a 2-8-1 season in 1975.
But the magical season, as Curci would call it, ran until Kentucky blanked North Carolina 21-0 in the 1976 Peach Bowl to cap an 8-4 regular season. It was the first bowl game Kentucky had been in since 1951. Two years later, Kentucky was retroactively named SEC co-champions with Georgia, after Mississippi State’s wins were vacated because of the use of an ineligible player
It became Kenctucky’s first SEC title since 1950. There hasn’t been another since.
“When we came in there, it wasn’t if we could win,” Ramsey, now Kentucky’s state secretary of labor, said. “It was how much we were going to win and how much we were going to win by.”
The squad was even better the next year in 1977, but its 10-1 mark was marred by NCAA recruiting violations that kept the Wildcats out of the postseason. It seemed to Ramsey that Kentucky’s football success was sure to continue.
“That’s been my frustration over the years,” he said. “That we haven’t done as well as I thought we should do. Obviously we got it done so there’s a road map to getting it done. I see Coach Stoops get great recruiting classes, now they just have to start bearing fruit.”
Mark Stoops is in the middle of his fourth year at Kentucky and is searching for his first postseason appearance. The Wildcats last bowl game came in 2010, and at 3-3, this season’s squad is again on the bowl bubble.
Curci was in Stoops’ spot from 1973-81. His nine seasons is the longest tenure of any Kentucky coach in program history. Curci, now 78, has been out of football for decades and lives in Tampa, Fla.
He’ll be reunited with his 1976 team Saturday and will head out for the coin flip with the current Kentucky captains.
Any struggles Stoops may be facing at the helm in Lexington, Curci has seen them he says. But Curci’s main challenge, one rarely discussed by Stoops, shifted off the field and onto the court.
“Honest to God,” Curci said. “I had no idea about how really big time basketball was and all that stuff.”
A “basketball school.”
It’s an unshakeable label. Kentucky has more Final Four appearances (17) than bowl appearances (15). Coach John Calipari’s program is an NBA farm system and the discrepancy between the two sports at Kentucky is as wide as ever during his tenure.
The calendar is about to turn in Lexington as the Blue-White basketball scrimmage is set for Friday night and the start of the regular season just three weeks away.
“It’s hard to go in there thinking you’re going to turn that thing into Alabama,” Curci said of the football program. “It ain’t gonna happen.”
Ramsey sees the basketball school talk differently.
“I think that’s a damn excuse is what I think that is,” Ramsey said. “You look at what Florida did just a few years ago and they’re a ‘football school’ yet they won two basketball national championships back-to-back. How do you explain that? I don’t buy that one at all.”
The lack of in-state recruits and the geography of the school doesn’t help either, Curci said. Before he left the head coaching gig at Miami to come to Kentucky, Curci asked the who’s who of college football for guidance: Alabama’s Bear Bryant, Notre Dame’s Ara Parseghian, Texas’ Darrell Royal, Arkansas’ Frank Broyles and LSU’s Charles McLendon.
All of them encouraged Curci to take the job except Parseghian.
“‘Be careful going to Kentucky,’” Curci remembers Parseghian telling him. “‘It’s the northernmost school in the south and the southernmost school in the north. When you go across the Kentucky border up north, they don’t necessarily want to go down into Kentucky. When you’re in the South, why go to Kentucky where it’s cold when they can go to Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. See what I mean?’”
But Curci had a special pitch to recruits: “You can build something,” he told them. And they bought it, and sure enough, it happened Curci said.
The Wildcats never won more than five games under Curci after 1977 and he was fired after a 3-8 season in 1981. He said there are two kinds of coaches: Ones who get fired and ones who don’t get fired.
“As we built the program, we started getting kids wanting to come there,” Curci said “And just like anything else, over time it just drops off.
“Drops off,” Curci said again. “At least we had that moment in time, you know?”
It’s that moment in time Stoops and the current batch of Wildcats is trying to reach.
“I get motivated when people like that come talk to us and express their memories and thoughts and how important it is for them to see us win,” sophomore LB Denzil Ware said of the 1976 players. “They laid their life on the line for this program to be where it’s at and we have to do the same and return the favor to them.”
Ramsey was quarterbacking the SEC title team two decades before Ware and fellow sophomore LB Josh Allen were born, yet the success Ramsey and his team achieved is what Kentucky is still chasing 40 years later.
“They made it,” Allen said. “It’s what we’re trying to do.”