Everything was looking up for Kentucky football. Bear Bryant was one of college football's bright young coaching stars. The best players in the nation at that time played in Ohio and Pennsylvania, both close enough to Lexington to make Kentucky a viable option, and the Kentucky boosters were organized, wealthy and powerful. Nothing short of football suicide could stand in the way of the Wildcats.
Well almost nothing. There was this small problem named Adolph Rupp.
Rupp was the basketball coach of the Wildcats, the best coach in the country and already a legend. Rupp didn't like Bryant and made no effort to hide his dislike for a football coach whose popularity might steer booster money away from his basketball program. Publicly Rupp was barely cordial to Bryant. Privately, he made every effort to disparage the football coach to boosters.
At the school's athletic banquet in the spring of 1953, the football awards were given out first, and when all the individual awards had been presented, the president of the university made a very big deal about a "special" gift he was going to give Bryant. He brought the coach to the head table and gave him a small box. In it was an engraved sterling silver cigarette lighter.
It was a small gift but since Kentucky had only gone 5-4-2 in the 1952 season, a rebuilding year after four straight bowl games including three of what then was the big four of bowls (Orange, Sugar and Cotton), Bryant really didn't expect a large gift of appreciation.
Next came the basketball awards. Kentucky was on probation that year, a combination of NCAA violations and fallout from a national point shaving scandal in which some Kentucky players had been implicated.
The president asked Rupp to come to the head table for a special "gift" and he handed the coach a box the exact same size as the one he had handed Bryant a short time earlier. Only when Rupp opened his box, there were keys to a brand new Cadillac, not a sterling silver cigarette lighter.
"That was the end right there," says John Baldwin, a two-way tackle on the 1950-52 teams and now a longtime Florida booster who lives in Gainesville. "Coach Bryant didn't say anything that night, but you could see it on his face that if he wasn't appreciated, he would find someplace else to go."
Since it was spring and Bryant had made a commitment to the Kentucky players, he wouldn't quit immediately. He stayed for the fall football season, taking the Wildcats to a 7-2-1 record. Kentucky was a fine team but there were only a limited number of bowls in those days, so they weren't quite good enough to qualify for a bowl invitation. Still, there was an excellent nucleus of outstanding young players on the roster. Bryant had made the decision to leave Kentucky in the fall and he made sure that when he left, there was a full cupboard for his successor.
"Kentucky football has never been the same," says Baldwin. "Coach Bryant built Kentucky football and gave the school something it had never had before. He felt he should have been every bit as appreciated as Coach Rupp, especially since Coach Rupp's team was on probation."
As for Kentucky, the Wildcats have had just six bowl teams in the 50 years since Bryant departed Lexington. Bryant was at Kentucky for eight seasons, won 60 games, lost 23 and tied one. He is still the all-time winningest football coach in Kentucky history.
Of the nine coaches who have followed Bryant at Kentucky, only one, Bear's successor Blanton Collier (who later coached the Cleveland Browns to the 1964 NFL championship) has posted a winning career record (41-36-3). There have been only 13 winning seasons.
Kentucky would win one more national championship in basketball under Rupp (1958), the same year Bryant won his national title at Texas A&M. Bryant would become the football coach and athletic director at Alabama. He would make a commitment to building a strong all-around athletic program at Alabama. To build the basketball program, he hired a former Kentucky player who had been a star under Rupp, C.M. Newton.
"We often wonder what might have happened with Kentucky football if not for that cigarette lighter," said Baldwin. "I think that Coach Bryant would have gone back to Alabama in 1959 when they called to offer him the job, but if he had been at Kentucky those few extra years, I think he might have built Kentucky football into something strong enough that it would still be strong today."