By LARRY VAUGHT
Former Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and Kentucky’s all-time leading rusher Sonny Collins will be the honorary captain Saturday night when UK hosts Mississippi State.
However, Collins originally said no when asked to be the honorary captain. Former UK teammates convinced him to change his mind.
“They said it was an opportunity for us to come back to Lexington,” said Collins, who lives in Georgia now and is retired from Delta Airlines. “It gives us a reason to come back and be together. They told me I needed to call and make the confirmation I was coming because they all wanted to see me. They were right, too. I didn’t take the invitational seriously like I should have. I am living a totally different lifestyle now than when I played football. But this is going to be fun.”
Collins rushed for 3,835 yards and 26 touchdowns before becoming a second-round draft pick of the Atlanta Falcons in the 1976 draft. He was a three-time all-SEC pick and SEC Player of the Year in 1973.
He grew up in Madisonville and dreamed of winning the Heisman Trophy while playing for Alabama, Ohio State, Southern Cal or Michigan.
“I wanted to go and win the Heisman when I was a high school freshman,” Collins said. “As you develop and grow into the game, you see what it means to family and the community. Things start changing.”
Kentucky alumni as well as fans in Madisonville told Collins they were sure he could play for any school in the country but that he could go to Kentucky and help rebuild a program under new coach John Ray.
“They told me it had to start with someone like myself,” Collins said. “My father and I talked and just decided it was best to go to UK. I have no regrets.”
Kentucky had won 15 games in six years before Collins came to UK. His first year the team went 3-8, Ray was fired and Fran Curci became the new coach.
Collins said the first year was “difficult” and then Curci started bringing in better talent such as offensive lineman Warren Bryant, defensive lineman Art Still and quarterback Derrick Ramsey.
“That is what we needed to go forward and I ended up being player of the year in the SEC,” Collins said. “We did everything but win all we wanted. The program got moving forward. I’m proud of that. After my senior year, the team started swallowing people up. I feel like the program needed someone like myself to stay home and help make it happen. I’m proud of that.”
Kentucky went 5-6 in 1973, 6-5 in 1974 and then slide back to 2-8-1 in 1975. However, in 1976 the Cats finished 9-3 and beat North Carolina in the Peach Bowl. In 1977, UK went 10-1 — and Kentucky has not won 10 games again since then.
Collins seldom comes back to Lexington unless it has something to do with meeting with former teammates. He follows UK basketball more than UK football, the NFL or any other football. He says football doesn’t hold his attention like basketball.
However, he knows coach Mark Stoops has UK “back on a roll” that Collins enjoys seeing.
“What is happening now is great. They are moving in the right direction,” Collins said. “They are giving coach Stoops all he needs to get to this point and I hope he keeps taking advantage of it. He has done a great job recruiting and my understanding is he really has the program back on track.
“If they win Saturday it would send a message to the SEC and everyone else. If Benny (Snell) has a good game, or great game, it would put him to where he could be first team All-American and move him up in the Heisman voting. This is the time to gain more respect for Kentucky football.”
Snell is chasing Collins all-time rushing record at UK. Snell has 2,799 yards with nine more regular season games this year and hopefully a bowl game. He needs 1,037 yards to break the record.
“It’s a different era now. They play 12 games and then a bowl game,” Collins said. “Our non-conference schedule was brutal. We played Penn State, West Virginia, North Carolina. We played some killers.
“Benny is doing well and some teammates told me he might possibly break my record. Actually, I was thinking the records had already been broken. Moe (Williams) and some of those guys, if they had stayed around four years, the record would have been gone a long time ago. I was thinking my record was already gone. But Benny is going to do well at the next level.”
Collins has no specific plans to meet with Snell. He’s scheduled to arrive in Lexington today and likely will be at UK’s walk-through on Friday.
“I don’t want to interfere with anything the team is doing,” Collins said. “I’m sure he’s a terrific person but I don’t want to bother anybody. So I don’t know if I’ll see him or not.”