Kentucky fans are eagerly awaiting word from Joker Phillips on who will start at quarterback for the Wildcats in Saturday's game against Ole Miss. But when Vito "Babe" Parilli was playing at the University of Kentucky, there was no doubt about who the best QB was.
Parilli returns to his alma mater this weekend as part of a statewide tour to promote his new book, "Kentucky Babe," that he wrote along with former Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Dick Burdette. It chronicles Parilli's career at UK playing for legendary coach Bear Bryant (including a national championship) plus Parilli's long run as a player and coach in professional football (did you know that Parilli was Joe Namath's backup for the Jets in the famous Super Bowl III game?).
"I waited a long time because I didn't feel like doing anything like that, but I found the right writer to write the book," noting that Burdette was working for the Lexington paper when Parilli played here. "We kind of connected and things went pretty good.
"This book, we try to make it more of a human interest story. I told Dick, I don't want to make it about myself all the time, when I was at UK I got enough of that, but we just tried to cover my childhood and my parents, people who I associate with and all the coaches - the one and only Bear Bryant- and he is in there quite a bit," Parilli said during an apperance on "The Leach Report" radio show this week.
Bryant's teams were always known for their rugged defense and punishing running attacks, but with Parilli, the Bear took to the air, to capitalize on the talents of his signal-caller. Parilli had UK's first 300-yard passing game in 1950 and it would be more than 30 years before there was another one.
That was an era when quarterbacks called most of the plays during a game, based on the gameplan the coaches had prepared for them. But Parilli said he had a keen sense of how Bryant thought about the offense and it came from their daily one-hour sessions of playing a football board game.
"The thing I can remember is that I probably spent more time with him than his wife did. We played a game everyday for three years play calling and strategy. I did this everyday for three years when I started. He never called a play (for me) but I knew what he wanted. You would say he had me brainwashed. He had me knowing the down and distance, what play he wanted and what play to call," recalled Parilli.
"We played a simulated game on a little board. We had a spinner and rolled the dice. If I had to kick, he would get the ball and he would call a play and I would give him, 'you got three yards. It's second and seven'. I would give him 25 seconds to get the play off and that paid off quite a bit," he added, "because I was never called for delay of game in 20 years of football."
Parilli came out of that quarterback cradle of western Pennsylvania and he ended up at UK because he accompanied a more highly-recruited high school teammate, Skippy Doyle, on a recruiting trip to Lexington.
Parilli was one of the three Kentucky players (Lou Michaels and Tim Couch being the others) to finish in the top 10 for a Heisman Trophy. Parilli was third in the 1951 balloting after finishing fourth the previous year. And he's one of five former Wildcats enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. But Parilli is quick to point out that his individual success was the result of being part of a great "team."
"Well, to me they always say 'who has been the best quarterback'. And I say, 'who has the best supporting cast'. You take Tom Brady - a great quarterback - but he gets the time to throw the football. There are a lot of great quarterbacks that were never with the right team. I remember playing with Paul Brown with the Cleveland Browns and he would tell me about a quarterback that played for the old Baltimore team and they had never won a game, and he classified him as the best that had ever played and no one had ever heard of him," said Parilli.
"You have 12 men working together and the number one factor is the defense. If the defense gets the ball back for you, then you don't have to play catch up football. There were teams where you had to do that. You may score 28, 30 points and lose the game," he continued. "I go back to UK and when we won the Sugar Bowl and we won because of our defense. I remember in the book, it says we were playing Oklahoma and they were the number one team and we had them at 13-0 at halftime and Bear came to me and said 'don't throw the ball the entire second half'. We will take care of them on defense and I thought he was crazy because they averaged 30-something points a game but, they got seven points in the second half and we beat them."
Parilli says Bryant was not a coach to focus on individual stars.
"In today's game in football, or any sport, you always have a super hero or superstar. Well, we didn't have one of those. We had a team. If I didn't have the defense I had at UK, I would not have been near as productive as I was. We were a team and not individual," Parilli said.
After his playing days ended, Parilli got into coaching and his first job was working with quarterbacks for the Pittsburgh Steelers. One of his pupils was a young QB out of Louisiana Tech named Terry Bradshaw.
"There are some interesting stories about Terry and what we had to go through to have him understand the game because he had raw talent. I had played 16 years and then went into coaching, so that was my first coaching job and that was a good one because I was there when the play the 'Immaculate Reception' happened and I think I called that play from the press box," he said. "It didn't work out how we called it but that was in the book. That was one of the more challenging jobs and probably one of the most enjoyable jobs I had."
Parilli and author Dick Burdette will be signing copies of "Kentucky Babe" at Commonwealth Stadium prior to Saturday's UK-Ole Miss game. Parilli also has book signings this week slated for Thursday (Big Blue Country in Louisville), Friday (Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington) and Sunday (Lexington Public Library). Parilli will also sign books on November 11 at Casanova restaurant in Lexington and participate in the November 12 Kentucky Book Fair at the Frankfort Civic Center.