LEXINGTON, Ky. — Tony Mayes hasn’t forgotten the play.
Kentucky was up 10-3 on a dreary November day in Commonwealth Stadium, but Florida was driving with less than a minute on the clock when Gators quarterback Kerwin Bell found wide receiver Ricky Nattiel on a 15-yard dig route.
Mayes, then a senior UK defensive back, was behind on the coverage. But a step across the middle of the field later, he was within reach. He stripped the ball from Nattiel and recovered the fumble with 29 ticks left in the game.
That was it. The last time Kentucky beat Florida.
“You’d think by…” Mayes has lost count. “How many years has it been now?”
Saturday would be 30.
“You’d think once in 30 years it’d happen,” he says.
But it hasn’t.
The world was a different place in 1986.
Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after it launched, and there was a nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Ronald Reagan occupied the Oval Office and Lionel Richie the top of the Billboard charts. In the sports world, Larry Bird led Boston to another NBA title and a fellow named Bill Buckner let a ball roll between his legs.
The Wildcats 10-3 win in 1986 didn’t produce a shard of importance amid a twister of events. Yet the word “streak” holds a higher place in sports than it does in most other areas of life.
In Lexington, “The Streak” is understood this time of year without explanation — Kentucky vs. Florida. Twenty-nine consecutive years of a Gator chomp. The longest active winning streak by one team against another in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Fourth on the all-time list led by Notre Dame sinking Navy from 1964-2006.
“Every year that we play ‘em, my family’s wondering,” Mayes says. “I’ve got three boys, we’re always wondering, ‘Are we goin’ to win this year?’
The nearly three-decade drought hasn’t gone without a few sprinkles. A 5-point loss last year in Lexington. A three-overtime thriller in The Swamp the year before. Those just in coach Mark Stoops’ tenure.
Rich Brooks coached the Cats from 2003-09 and can recall when his teams came close. He thought he had the Gators beat in his first year at UK before the forces sided with Florida again.
“Jared Lorenzen got hurried and spun around and threw a ball trying to throw it away, threw it to Florida and they ran it for a touchdown,” Brooks remembers. “That was the end of the game.”
Then in 2007, the year the Wildcats upset top-ranked LSU.
“Scored at the start of the second half and kicked an onside kick — a little fly kick over to the right sideline,” Brooks says. “Unfortunately we caught it about nine-and-a-half yards instead of 10. I think we’d have (had) a good shot at winning that game.”
Salmon fishing is the sport of choice now for Brooks, who moved back to Oregon in retirement, but he still keeps up with Kentucky football. He watched the Cats surrender a 25-point lead last Saturday and was blunt assessing the Florida matchups past and present.
Florida’s had mostly outstanding teams and Kentucky hasn’t, he says.
It’s the simple truth fueling the streak. The chance of the underdog stealing an occasional win is likely, but far from guaranteed. The Gators have claimed three national titles during the streak. They’ve been quarterbacked by Heisman winners Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow and coached by Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer.
“Certainly the Florida streak has been a real bugaboo,” Brooks says. “They need to get over that hurdle, the sooner the better. Each year that it goes, it’s going to be a bigger story.”
And while there’s been a handful of close calls, the average score over the last 29 years isn’t — roughly a 40-17 Florida rout.
“I really don’t know what you’d attribute it to,” says Bill Ransdell, quarterback of the 1986 team. “I mean, it’s just one of those things where you scratch your head and go, ‘You kiddin’ me?’”
Bill Curry couldn’t break it. Neither could Hal Mumme nor Guy Morriss. Brooks came close, but Joker Phillips did not. Stoops gets his fourth shot at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in The Swamp.
In calculated coach speak, Saturday’s game is important to Stoops and company because it’s a divisional matchup. Players have downplayed the streak and Stoops sizzles at the mention of it.
“I’m concerned about our games and you look at the mistakes and the tendencies that you’ve played with, but the past 30 years have nothing to do with us and this team,” Stoops says. “Really not concerned with it at all. We’re really worried about this week. We have enough to worry about with Kentucky and our team and getting any mistakes cleaned up and technique, assignments cleaned up and just work on ourselves.”
Saturday morning will mark 10,892 days since Kentucky beat Florida. Almost a billion seconds since Ransdell quarterbacked the Cats to a victory capped by Mayes’ play.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Well, I bet you like that record.’ It’s not a record. It’s nothing like that. It’s nothing I want to be…” Ransdell stops mid sentence. “I’m proud that we won the game when we won it. I’m not proud that it’s still there.”