July 20th, 2013

Billy Reed: Koch an integral part of UK football's golden era


Billy Reed

Executive Editor

Billy Reed: Koch an integral part of UK football's golden era
Bear Bryant coached Joe Koch at UK /photo by webcrawler.com

“Joe Koch would make a really good foxhole companion.”

                           — Bob Hardy, UK quarterback, 1953-55


You look at Joe Koch today, trim and tanned at 80, and try to imagine him as an offensive lineman in the Southeastern Conference. He’s 6 feet tall and not much above his college playing weight of 190. Shouldn’t he be a lot bigger?

“The difference between then and now,” Koch says, “is that because you played the whole game, you couldn’t weigh 270. When the ball changed hands, you stayed out there — even if it was 90 degrees.” 

Yes, you read that correctly. In Koch’s era, the early 1950s, everybody played both ways. A linebacker on defense, Koch lined up at guard when the University of Kentucky Wildcats had the ball.  Then, as now, football is mostly about blocking and tackling— and Koch excelled at both, using quickness and instinct to beat bigger opponents. 

“He weighed 190 pounds in a uniform and about 150 pounds of that was heart,” Hardy said.  “Sometimes he got outweighed, but he’d fight you till the dogs died. Joe was good at everything he did.” 

Koch (pronounced Cook) was an integral part of what’s still known as the golden era of UK football.  The years were 1949 through ’54. The Wildcats posted a 47-17-3 record and played in the Orange, Sugar and Cotton bowls. In 1950, their win in the Sugar Bowl ended Oklahoma’s 47-game winning streak and would have earned them the mythical national title by today’s standards. 

As often is the case with linemen, Koch has been relegated to the shadows over the years. But that oversight will be partly rectified on Tuesday and Wednesday, July 23 and 24, when Koch and three others will be the honorees at the annual Governor’s Cup festivities kicking off the 2013 football season.

The Governor’s Cup, of course, goes to the winner of the Kentucky-Louisville game, which will be held this year at noon on Sept. 14, in UK’s Commonwealth Stadium. Each year four legendary players, two from each school, are honored at a reception/auction and a news conference the following day.

Besides Koch, this year’s honorees are Frank LeMaster, who played linebacker at UK from 1970-72; Ted Washington, an All-America defensive end at Louisville from 1987-91 and subsequent NFL All-Pro; and Bill Gatti, former U of L star from the 1960s and a Hall-of-Fame softball player. 

Koch grew up in Louisville watching his father run Clarksdale TV at the corner of Shelby and Broadway. He remembers watching the WAVE-3 tower being built at Preston and Broadway.      

At St. Xavier, which was one of four all-white Louisville high schools in the 1940s (the others were Male, Manual and Flaget), Koch played under Ray Baer, who turned out to be the perfect teacher for him. A native of Louisville, Baer had a storied career at Manual before going on to great glory at Michigan.

An All-American in 1927, his senior season, Baer played three different line positions. The Wolverines’ quarterback, Benny Friedman, called him “the best college lineman I ever saw.  He was wonderful on both offense and defense.”

While Paulie Miller was teaching the novel Split-T offense at crosstown Catholic rival Flaget, Baer stuck with the traditional Single-Wing, which was more of a smash-mouth attack. That suited Koch just fine.

“I learned a lot from Ray about blocking and tackling,” Koch says.

When UK was preparing for its game with Oklahoma in the 1951 Sugar Bowl, Koch was a senior St. X. He remembers Wildcats coach Paul “Bear” Bryant sending him letters from New Orleans despite the fact that Koch had committed to Western Kentucky immediately after being named the MVP in an all-star game played in Bowling Green.

“I made a whole helluva lot of tackles that game,” Koch said, “and suddenly I could go to about any school I wanted to attend. I got letters from Notre Dame. But when Coach Bryant came calling, I decided that what I really wanted to do was play for him. I had to go back to Western Kentucky and unshake hands.” 

Nevertheless, he received a rude awakening when he arrived on campus in the summer of 1951 and discovered that 125 other freshmen were ready to compete for berths on Bryant’s team. The weeding-out process was brutal. Bryant took the varsity to Millersburg for a “boot camp” and left the freshmen in Lexington to butt heads at Stoll Field. 

Quickly, Koch found out that being a Bryant player was different from being a Bryant recruit. 

“He didn’t say a lot that I wanted to hear,” Koch said, “but it was almost always the truth.” 

Determined to succeed, Koch impressed the coaches in Lexington enough to get an invitation to join the varsity in Millersburg, where he earned a spot on the roster. 

“The first college game I ever saw, I played in,” Koch said. That would have been UK’s 72-13 win over Tennessee Tech on Sept. 15, 1951.

With Koch seeing spot duty on both sides of the ball — everybody played on both sides in those days — the Wildcats posted an 8-4 record and defeated Texas Christian 20-7 on Jan. 1, 1952, in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. 

“The Cotton Bowl made a huge impression on me,” Koch said. “We practiced in Houston at Rice University’s field, then caught a train to Dallas.” 

But that was to be the only bowl in which Koch played. Rebuilding in 1952, Bryant coached his team to a 5-3 record heading into the final two games. But a 14-14 tie with Tennessee in Knoxville smashed its bowl hopes, which surely had something to do with the 27-0 road loss to Florida in the final game. 

The 1953 season got off to an 0-2 start before Bryant, who had never found an adequate replacement for star quarterback Vito “Babe” Parilli, turned almost in desperation to Bob Hardy, a redshirt sophomore from Paducah. Hardy threw a couple of TD passes in a 26-13 win over Florida that jump-started the Cats to a 7-2-1 season.

What Koch remembers most about his junior season is the season-ending 27-21 win over Tennessee at Stoll Field. It was Bryant’s first win over the hated Volunteers, and he only laughed at Vols fans who claimed that fullback Ralph Paolone’s knee had touched the ground before he got into the end zone for the winning touchdown.

Did he like one side of the ball better than the other?

“I liked defense better,” he said. “Blocking’s blocking. You got a job on a certain play and that’s what you do.  But I liked the hitting aspect of it. If you made a tackle behind the line, you got two extra tickets to the next home game.”

The Cats seemed ready to return to glory in 1954. Bryant had told his friends that the ’54 team would be the second-most talented of his UK career. Early in the year, Bryant turned down a job offer from LSU and said he wanted to stay at UK the rest of his career. 

Only a month later, Bryant shocked the college football world by announcing that he was leaving UK to become head football coach and athletic director at Texas A&M. Scrambling for a successor, UK hired Blanton Collier, a native of Paris, Ky., who had been working as Paul Brown’s right-hand man with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns. The senior co-captains of Collier’s first team were Koch and Harry “Pete” Kirk of Mount Sterling. 

“When Collier came in, things changed,” Koch said. “He was named the SEC Coach of the Year my senior year, but everybody said he did it with ‘Bear’s boys.’ Coach Bryant was a tough act to follow.” 

The 1954 Wildcats got off to a 0-2 start but rallied for a 7-3 record that included a second consecutive win over Tennessee. Looking back at that season, Koch has special memories of UK’s 21-14 win over Auburn at Stoll Field. 

“We played a great game with no penalties,” he said. “After the game, (assistant coach) Ermal Allen gave me a little hell because he didn’t think I played very well. But after the season, Auburn named me to its all-opponent team. Ermal apologized in front of the whole team.” 

After graduating, Koch went into the Air Force and spent three years on planes that refueled the B-47 and B-52 bombers. He never considered the NFL as an option because of his modest size and the modest salaries paid in those days.

”Plus,” said Koch, “I had a hankering to get into the business world. My father never worked for another man.” 

Joe went to work for American Air Filter and left in 1966 to form his own company, the Koch Filter Corp.

“Yep, KFC, just like the big boys (in the fried-chicken business).” In 2010 he sold the company and retired. 

Although Koch is a member of the St. Xavier Hall of Fame, he says he doesn’t attend many high school games. However, he has leased a suite in  Commonwealth Stadium since they were added more than a decade ago. New UK coach Mark Stoops will be the 10th head coach who has tried to bring back the glory of the Bryant days. 

For years, the men who played for Bryant at UK had a reunion every couple of years. Sometimes Bryant would come from Tuscaloosa, where he had become at icon at Alabama, to join them. The stories rolled as smoothly as the bourbon that Bryant enjoyed. To a man, though, the players held Bryant in awe — and Koch was no exception.

Said Jim Proffitt, an end who was a year ahead of Koch at UK: “Cookie (the players’ nickname for Koch) always said, ‘Aw, Coach Bryant didn’t make me jump. I wouldn’t jump for him. Hell, I don’t jump to his tunes anymore. He doesn’t bother me.’ But then there came the time when he was hanging around with Coach Bryant at a golf outing at Hurstbourne.” 

As Proffitt tells it, Bryant had played nine holes and was halfway down the No. 1 fairway when he turned and yelled, “Hey, Cookie!” Koch said, “Yeah, Coach?” And Bryant said, “I’m awful thirsty — think you could find me a Coke somewhere?” Joe said, “OK, Coach,” and took off. 

“He has to run over to the No. 2 fairway,” said Profitt, “and there’s about 50 people in line there trying to get a soft drink. He pushes ’em out of the way, he knocks a couple of old ladies down to get to the front of the line and he says, “Gimme a soft drink … Coach Bryant wants a soft drink. 

“They pour him a soft drink, and he runs all the way back down the golf course and gives it to Coach Bryant. And Steve Meilinger and I are over there just breaking down laughing. We said, ‘Cookie, you said you weren’t gonna hop when Coach Bryant barked anymore.’” 



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