Couch: A look back at the career of a Kentucky legend

Ask someone who the best player in University of Kentucky basketball history is, and the debate could go on for hours without a consensus being reached. Ask someone who is the school’s best football player ever and the discussion might be brief, and the answer would probably be Tim Couch.

At a school where basketball has long received star billing, Couch is certainly the Wildcats’ most marquee gridiron star if arguably its best. Names from the past like Babe Parilli, Art Still and Randall Cobb could be bandied about, but for sheer pigskin pedigree, the nod here goes to Couch.

That pedigree included being named Kentucky’s “Mr. Football” after his senior year at Leslie County (Kentucky) High School in 1995 and being labeled by ESPN as the sixth-best high school athlete ever. It included a three-year career from 1996-98 that saw him leave Lexington with seven NCAA career records, 14 Southeastern Conference (SEC) records, and 26 school marks. Couch was a first-team All-American in 1998, the Consensus SEC Player of the Year and finished fourth in the Heisman voting. And on April 17, 1999, he was the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft by the expansion Cleveland Browns franchise.

A look from 1998. That year, Kentucky went 7-5 and played Penn State in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, FL. The Wildcats lost, 26-14. | Courtesy University of Kentucky Athletics

After that, injuries, bad coaching decisions, and bad teams limited Couch to just five NFL seasons. But there is no doubt that when he was based in the Bluegrass State, he was certainly one of the best ever under center.

Couch was a two-sport high school star, averaging 36 points per game in basketball as a junior—the highest in the state that year—and finished his career with 3,023 points. In a state almost as basketball-crazed as Indiana, no one would have blamed Kentucky fans had they hoped at the time he’d join the Big Blue basketball team, but he was even better suited for football.

Couch left Leslie County the holder of several national career passing records, including most pass completions (872), most passing yards (12,104), most TD passes (132) and best passing percentage for a season (75.1 percent). He was also the most highly-ranked recruit ever to say “yes” to the Wildcats.

Courtesy University of Kentucky Athletics

Even though Couch’s decision to spurn all the college football factories clamoring for his services was celebrated almost as much as the second coming in Lexington, when the 1996 season started coach Bill Curry had him splitting time with Billy Jack Haskins. Owing perhaps in part to this inexplicable decision, Curry was fired after starting the year 1-6 and replaced by Hal Mumme.

The former Valdosta State head coach announced he would immediately install his pass-oriented offense, and a new era was ushered in, not just at Kentucky but across all of college football. Dubbed the “Air Raid” by Mumme, his pass-first, ask-questions-later attack was the original blueprint from which all of today’s high-powered spread offenses were drawn.

With the help of assistants like Mike Leach and Sonny Dykes—guys who have no conscience about putting it up early, often and everywhere—Mumme planted the roots of a system that have stretched to include Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, new Southern Cal offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury and many others.

“We started all of it in 1997,” Couch told ESPN in July 2018. “Hal was the head coach, and Mike Leach was my offensive coordinator. Then Mike Leach went on to become the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma when they won the national championship…and then he becomes the head coach at Texas Tech. That’s where he got Lincoln Riley. He played for (Leach), and then Lincoln coached Baker (Mayfield). It’s just the whole ‘Air Raid’ tree.”

Courtesy University of Kentucky Athletics

With the switch, Kentucky’s usually anemic offense became all-world. On Couch’s strong right arm, the Wildcats shot up the statistical charts, and he rewrote the record books. Consider some of the Kentucky marks Couch, a 2005 inductee in the UK Athletics Hall of Fame, still holds more than 20 years later:

He threw for a single-season record 4,151 yards in 1998, and still holds three of the Top 5 single-game performances in school history.

He threw it 67 times against Arkansas in 1998 and 66 times versus LSU in 1997, the first- and second-most attempts in a single game.

He completed 400 passes (of 553 attempts) in 1998 and 363 in 1997, the first- and second- most in a single season.

He’s first in net passing yards (4,275 in 1998) and career (.671) and single-season (.723 in 1998) completion percentage.

He threw 7 touchdowns in a game twice (and 6 once), had 20 career 300-yard passing games, including 11 in 1998, and went to Craig Yeast for a 97-yard TD pass in 1998, all records that still stand.

No wonder Cleveland passed on Donovan McNabb, Ricky Williams, and Daunte Culpepper to make Couch what was thought would be the cornerstone of its offense for years to come. But the Browns, returning to the city as the NFL’s penance for allowing Art Modell to move his franchise to Baltimore in 1996, couldn’t be patient.

Instead, the new team with the old name rushed its “franchise” QB down the road to an early exit from the league. Couch’s NFL internship lasted through training camp and one half of the 2002 season opener against Pittsburgh. He was hustled into the second half of a 43-0 pounding by the Steelers, named the Week 2 starter, and it was pretty much downhill from there.

A broken thumb, a broken leg in the last regular-season game of 2002 which forced him to miss a playoff game, a rotator cuff injury and shoulder surgery limited Couch to five seasons, 62 games and average career numbers. Couch started 59 times, completed 1,025 of 1,714 passes for 11,131 yards and 64 TDs with 67 INTs. He also rushed 124 times for 556 yards and 2 TDs.

Still, he finished his career as the Browns’ all-time leader in passing percentage at 59.8 and held several franchise rookie records that have since been broken. He had tryouts with Green Bay in 2004, Chicago and Cincinnati in 2005, Tennessee in 2006 and reportedly signed a two-year contract with Jacksonville in 2007, but was cut in training camp.

Couch called breaking his leg against Atlanta in 2002 and then watching replacement Kelly Holcomb throw for more than 400 yards in an AFC Wildcard loss to Pittsburgh the turning point of his career.

“That really changed the whole projection of my career,” Couch told ESPN. “So I don’t get to play in that and then there’s a quarterback controversy (with Kelly Holcomb) and I just never recovered from it. I just felt that where I started with this team to where we were (in 2002), I thought we were totally on the right track. I just couldn’t stay healthy enough to consistently do it. That part, really, I’ve never been able to get over.”

Couch has made peace with it, however, as evidenced by his return to serve as the TV color analyst for the team’s 2018 preseason games, replacing Browns legend Bernie Kosar. It was a move that shocked many of Couch’s friends and acquaintances, though he’s not sure why.

“It’s been a good feeling. I’m super excited to be here,” Couch told The Morning Journal as he returned to the Browns’ training camp in Berea, Ohio, for the first time in 15 years last summer. “I tell my friends all the time—and they’re like, ‘How are you going to be a Browns fan for how your career ended there?’ ‘They’re a bad team’ and this and that. I’m like, ‘I will always be a Browns fan forever.’”

And probably an even bigger Kentucky fan as well. H&A

Jimmy Creed

Jimmy Creed

Jimmy Creed is the former award-winning sports editor of The Anniston (Alabama) Star and editor of Saints Digest, the official team publication of the New Orleans Saints. He is a two-time winner of the Alabama Sports Writers Association Herby Kirby Award for the best sports story in the state of Alabama and has received numerous writing awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors, the National Motorsports Press Association. and the Alabama Press Association. He is also the author of NASCAR legend Donnie Allison's biography "Donnie Allison: As I Recall."
Jimmy Creed

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