The season that never was: a two-part look at Coach Dale Lindsey and the U.K. ‘Thin Thirty’
By Davis Jones
In 1964, USD head football coach Dale Lindsey earned All-American honors as a linebacker at Western Kentucky University. He led his team to an undefeated record and a Tangerine Bowl Championship in 1963. A former teammate from 1962 at the University of Kentucky was referenced in the Times-Argus newspaper as calling Lindsey, who earned all-state recognition at Bowling Green High School, “…probably the best defensive prospect this state has ever produced.”
In 1962, the “best defensive prospect” quit Kentucky in the spring of his freshman year. He transferred, heading west. The rest is history.
“I remember exactly what that last day was like,” Lindsey said recently. “It was about a three and a half hour practice, and I had a pretty good day, and at the end of practice, myself and a kid named Tommy Brush were taken up to one end of the practice field. We ran more than any of the rest of them. And I thought, ‘What the hell? I was doing what you asked me to do.’”
Similar thoughts were echoed by 57 of Lindsey’s teammates during his year with the 1962 “Thin Thirty.” It was here at the University of Kentucky that its football program saw two-thirds of its players leave due to head coach Charlie Bradshaw’s intense teaching philosophy and brutal conditioning regimen.
“To me, football is a game,” Lindsey said in a 1962 Sports Illustrated article, commenting on the exit. “It’s a rough game, and you expect the physical punishment, but it’s supposed to be fun, too. When it gets to the point that it isn’t any fun, why continue?”
Sports Illustrated journalists Morton Sharnik and Robert Kramer catalogued Bradshaw’s tumultuous first season with the Wildcats in the above-mentioned article, “The New Rage to Win,” published on October 8, 1962. In it, Bradshaw’s initial comments to his team appeared identical to those delivered by hundreds of coaches across the country.
“Men, you are in for a tremendous experience — you will be part of a winner,” Bradshaw reportedly told his 88 players before the season started. “But the price of victory will come high — hard work, perhaps the hardest you have ever known, self-sacrifice, dedication and, most of all, discipline.”
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary for Lindsey, either. Upon hearing the news of Bradshaw’s hiring, in fact, he reacted with optimism.
“What happened was we all went to Kentucky [after high school] to play for Blanton Collier in 1961,” he said. “I was a freshman in the fall of ’61. In January of ’62, Charlie came in. I knew him because Charlie had recruited me to come play for Alabama, and I thought, ‘Well, lucky guy.’ I went to U.K. to play for one gentleman, and this other guy they hired I already know.”
Bradshaw took over at Kentucky in 1962 after coaching alongside the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama, winning a national championship the previous season. Bryant’s reputation among his teams as a proven winner was often coupled with his reputation as a strict disciplinarian. While serving as head coach and athletic director for the Texas A&M Aggies, 76 of his players quit within the first ten days of preseason camp.
“I don’t want ordinary people,” Bryant reportedly said, as appeared in an ESPN Classic online biography. “I want people who are willing to sacrifice and do without a lot of those things ordinary students get to do. That’s what it takes to win.”
Bradshaw bought into a similar price for success when he arrived at Kentucky that January. Few of Bradshaw’s players anticipated how high this price would be.
“Bradshaw’s conditioning program began….last winter in a series of ‘informal’ preseason workouts,” Sharnik and Kramer wrote. “The players expected them to be something like the loosely disciplined winter conditioning drills imposed by former Coach Blanton Collier. Instead they found a jam-packed schedule conducted at a high-speed, nonstop pace. They lifted weights in one room, had blocking drills in a second and wrestled and had agility drills in a third…NCAA rules do not permit supervised preseason out-of-doors practice, but, as one player said ‘The coaches never left the gym. They did happen to be watching through the window, though.’”
What these coaches allowed themselves to see — regardless whether they experienced angst in doing so — would almost certainly attract severe penalties from today’s NCAA.
“The wrestling was more like brawling,” a player reportedly said in the Sports Illustrated article. “Two of us fought until one of us dropped. Then the loser had to brawl with the next fellow. If he dropped again he stayed right there. Fifteen minutes of that was something to remember. I had to be helped to my feet after one session.”
Sometimes physically pushed to the point of vomiting, the players also suffered emotionally-charged lashings from coaching staff. Assistants would knock players down or would sometimes hit them in the head with forearms if a mistake was made. Sharnik and Kramer reference one instance when several players admitted to assistant coach Bob Ford hitting quarterback Louis Owen in the mouth with his fist after he missed a tackle, knocking off one half of Owen’s tooth. Ford called it an accident.
“He did it,” Lindsey said, nodding. “He knocked Louis’s tooth out. Bob Ford hit me in the facemask, too. He dropped me one day like a hot potato in a drill because I didn’t do what he wanted me to do. He wanted me to get off the block and make the tackle, and I did — thought it was really good. He got me up and said, ‘You get over there, boy.’ He put my hand down, motioned toward me and said ‘Well c’mon.’ I’m thinking, ‘I’m not going to go out there and hit the coach really hard.’ And he just knocked the shit out of me.”
Owens said later that he agreed with Ford, also calling the hit an accident. “The tooth was crooked anyway,” he reportedly said.
“Louis was being kind,” Lindsey said. “Louis got drilled. That’s exactly what it was. And Louis wasn’t the only one that got hit. It happened to a bunch of guys. He’s the only one that lost a tooth, but that sort of stuff was a daily occurrence.”
Bob Ford — not to mention other coaches during the period — would insist that such coaching was necessary as a way to prepare young men for the rigors of the sport.
“Some players don’t realize that what we are doing is for their own good,” he was referenced as saying in the Sports Illustrated article. “They don’t realize that football is a demanding game. It requires a bold spirit and a strong body. It’s when a player is tired that he must play his best. You can’t teach this. A boy learns it by the coach’s example. Coaching is vigor and enthusiasm, and it’s infectious. I believe in coaching.”
When asked to respond to Ford’s statement, Lindsey paused.
“I think you can push a player to get better and to work him when he’s tired,” he finally said. “I don’t think anyone would ever object to that.”
“And we were certainly pushed ‘til we were tired.”
*Read part two of this series in the Sept. 9 issue of the Vista