Barrier-Breaking Pioneers Inspire Cats in Big Win
Kentucky’s 0-2 start is a memory, but by no means a distant one for many.
The negativity that came with it still buzzes around the program, but that’s not stopping Mark Stoops.
“You can't change the past, but we can certainly change our future and push forward,” Stoops said.
Ironically, the springboard to that future may have been the bravery of four men who played for Kentucky five decades ago.
Thursday night – five days removed from UK’s first win of the season – the Wildcats attended a special ceremony as a team just outside their new practice facility. A statue honoring the four men who broke the color barrier in the Southeastern Conference – Nate Northington, Greg Page, Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg – was unveiled 49 years after Northington made his debut in a league game.
The experience, if you ask Stoops, played no small part as UK won its second game in a row, 17-10 over South Carolina, Saturday night in Commonwealth Stadium.
“I think that was very important for us, the courage of those guys and what they have done,” Stoops said. “Knowing the difference between right and wrong and that those guys really made a stand, a difference and had an impact on a lot of people's lives. They taught others at that time and are still teaching today.”
Count the Cats among their pupils.
On Thursday, UK’s practice was ending just as the three men and Page’s brother, Melvin, were getting ready for their big evening. Hackett – the first African-American captain in any sport in SEC history – took a moment to address the team as he has multiple times in recent years.
His words resonated.
“I think that was very important for us, the courage of those guys and what they have done,” said quarterback Stephen Johnson II, who won in his first career start. “Knowing the difference between right and wrong and that those guys really made a stand, a difference and had an impact on a lot of people's lives. They taught others at that time and are still teaching today.”
Forty-eight hours later, Hackett’s words and the magnitude of the unveiling event still resonated.
“It was something that we went to as a team and were able just to witness that moment in history,” Boom Williams said. “We even talked about before we came out in the locker room and said we were inspired by it. We just wanted to come out and play a good game in front of our home crowd and get a good win. It was real good to do that.”
Williams played an instrumental role in the victory, rushing for 123 yards and a touchdown on just 15 carries. He was complemented by Benny Snell Jr., the true freshman who played the role of fourth-quarter closer. He carried eight times and scored from the Wildcat formation on UK’s go-ahead drive, then toted three more times to set up a Johnson sneak to seal the win on the game’s final drive.
All told, UK didn’t throw a single pass in the final 15 minutes.
“We’re glad to have that,” said Snell, who carried 16 times for 73 yards and that touchdown. “Our line, they’re amazing and I feel like we got one of the best running-back groups in the SEC.”
Williams and Snell are developing into quite the duo at running back, but their effort would have been in vain if not for UK’s defense, a group that had motivation even beyond the example of the four pioneers.
Saturday brought a pronouncement from ESPN’s Lee Corso that Kentucky “might have the worst defense in the history of football,” as well as a speech from newly enshrined UK Athletics Hall of Famer and Tennessee Titan Wesley Woodyard in the huddle immediately before the defense took the field for the first time. But it was the Cats’ head coach who really got their attention on Wednesday.
Following that day’s practice, Stoops did not hold back in voicing his displeasure with the way the defense had performed.
“I think some people needed to hear that conversation,” Denzil Ware said. “I think some people needed that to open their eyes up. It shouldn’t have (gotten) to that point, but, hey, things happen for a reason.”
The reason may have been so that UK could defend the way it did on Saturday night.
The visiting Gamecocks managed only 10 points and 268 total yards, completing a scant 50 percent of their passes and managing only 2.6 yards per carry when you factor in the four times UK sacked Brandon McIlwain. Ware had two of those sacks, including the one on fourth down that ended South Carolina’s final drive.
“It all starts up there,” Stoops said of UK’s defensive front. “Those guys have to play with that attitude, that technique and be that precise all the time.”
Consistency was at the heart of Stoops’ post-practice ire and it’s consistency the Cats will now pursue in preparation for one of college football's toughest tasks: a trip to Alabama. That begins Sunday with recovery and film review and in earnest on Monday when UK returns to the practice field.
“It would be nice to be undefeated right now, but things happen,” Ware said. “Like (Stoops) said, we can’t sit there and harp on the other two games. All we can do is get better from here.”