Two members of the UK Athletic Hall of Fame passed away over the weekend. Vito “Babe” Parilli lost his battle with cancer on Saturday and Jerry Bird died of natural causes at his home in Corbin, KY on Sunday. Both of these athletes had tremendous impact on their sports during some of the golden years for the university’s football and basketball teams.
Babe Parilli played for the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant. I often forget that Bear coached the Wildcats before he cemented his legend as coach of the Crimson Tide. But, playing within the legendary coach’s “‘T’ formation”, Parilli was able to take the Wildcats to heights never seen before, and rarely touched since. Parilli was named a first-team All-American in his junior and senior seasons, as well as finishing fourth and third, respectively, in Heisman balloting. Babe led the team to three major bowls in his three years as a starter. In 1950 Orange Bowl, the Cats lost to Santa Clara; but in the next two bowls, the 1951 Sugar Bowl and the 1952 Cotton Bowl, Babe led the Wildcats to big victories, including defeating then undefeated Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. The Sugar Bowl win capped off an impressive 11-1 season that included an SEC Championship.
Parilli finished his three year career at UK with 4,351 passing yards and a 55.9% completion rate. He threw a Kentucky record 50 touchdown passes, which is still good for fourth all-time. Parilli left UK and went to the NFL, selected fourth overall by the the Green Bay Packers in 1952. He spent time in the NFL, then spent the remainder of his professional career in the AFL. His career was capped with the 1969 Super Bowl Championship with the AFL’s New York Jets. Parilli was Joe Namath’s back up in the big game. Mitch Barnhart, Athletic Director at UK, said this of Parilli’s passing:
“Babe is among the greatest legends of Kentucky athletics history. He was the quarterback for a golden era of Wildcat football and loved returning to Lexington for the team reunions. We are saddened by his passing and send our sympathies to his family and friends.”
Parilli was 87.
Former UK basketball player Jerry Bird also passed away over the weekend. Bird also played for one of his sport’s most iconic figures, Adolph Rupp. Bird was a part of the basketball program from 1954-1956 and helped lead Kentucky to back-to-back SEC Championships in 1954 and 1955. The 1954 squad also had a perfect 25-0 season and was named national champion by the Helms Athletic Foundation. Bird was inducted into the inaugural class of the UK Athletic Hall of Fame in 2005 and had his jersey number retired as well.
While his career numbers weren’t spectacular by today’s standards, Bird averaged a double-double in his last two seasons as a Wildcat. He shot 40% from the field in 56 games in his career. Bird’s lasting mark on the program comes in the form of an NCAA Tournament school record 24 rebounds in a match-up with the Iowa Hawkeyes in 1956. Fans might remember Bam Adebayo’s 18 rebound performance in UK’s opening round game vs. Northern Kentucky in this past year’s tournament; that game occurred exactly 61 years after Bird’s impressive performance on the boards. Adebayo got close, but the record is still Bird’s...61 years later.
After Kentucky, Bird was drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers in 1956 and played on season with the New York Knicks in 1959. But the call of his old Kentucky home was strong and Bird eventually settled back in his hometown of Corbin, KY. He passed away there on Sunday at the age of 83.
Two special Wildcats were lost over the weekend. Our thoughts and prayers are with both families during this difficult time.