When football fans think of Paul “Bear” Bryant, nearly all of them automatically think of his great Alabama teams that featured the likes of Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler and LeRoy Jordan. And when Kentucky fans think of their great mid-century coaching icons, the first one that comes to mind is naturally their legendary basketball coach, Adolph “The Baron of the Bluegrass” Rupp, who led the ‘Cats to four NCAA titles. But not on New Year’s Day of 1951. That day belonged to football.
Going into this Sugar Bowl game, Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma Sooners had won 31 straight games going back to the first game of 1948, a streak that included the past two Sugar Bowls. Bear Bryant’s Kentucky Wildcats had run through their own schedule without a hitch until they came a cropper in the final game of the year against arch-rival Tennessee. Kentucky wound up at No. 7 in the polls, but Oklahoma’s four All-American starters and its three season winning streak combined to make the Sooners as a solid 6- to 7-point favorite. Even the unseasonably cool New Orleans weather favored Wilkinson’s largely one platoon team.
But every dog has its day, though in this case it turned out to be the Wildcats. The jarring tackling of Walt Yowarsky and his fellow Kentuckians caused five fumbles that led directly to a first quarter score and a stifling of a fourth quarter Sooner comeback. All-American quarterback Babe Parilli threw only twelve passes the entire afternoon, but of his nine completions, two connected for touchdowns, and that was enough to ensure the greatest day in Wildcat gridiron history. Kentucky has won many NCAA basketball tournaments in the ensuing years, and coach Bryant went on to even greater personal glories at Texas A&M and Alabama, but for one glorious afternoon “The Bear” could have given “Baron” Rupp himself a run for his money as Kentucky’s favorite coach.
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