wMike Mooneyham

Sept. 30, 2007

Southeastern Conference football, exploitation of players, game fixing and a gay sex scandal involving a legendary pro wrestling promoter and a Hollywood film icon. How’s that for a tease?

And it’s just the tip of the iceberg in one of the best books on college football to come down the pike in quite some time. Shannon Ragland’s “The Thin Thirty” is a disturbing yet fascinating look at the 1962 University of Kentucky football team and its first-year coach Charlie Bradshaw, a Bear Bryant disciple, whose team was thinned from 88 to 30 by his brutal conditioning tactics.

Bradshaw desperately wanted to replicate the Bryant magic, restore the Kentucky football program and lead it to rightful gridiron glory. Preaching family, God, football and academics, he attended to build a national champion on the football field, but his flawed vision rendered his preaching hollow when he stepped onto the practice field and brutalized his players.

His methods, whether by design or simple cause and effect, led to an alarming rate of attrition. A trickle escalated into a mass exodus that cut the team down to its bare bones. Scholarships were unfairly pulled, and many players left school with no future in sight, the culture of fear and shame associated with quitting protecting the guilty and punishing the innocent. The means justified the ends and in considering if players would pay the price, Bradshaw forgot to consider if the price was too high.

The book, which delves into the heartbreaking experiences of a group of players who endured that shameful period, also tackles some revealing off-the-field issues, including a gay sex scandal that involved longtime pro wrestling power-broker Jim Barnett and film star Rock Hudson, along with allegations that some UK players may have tried to fix a game that season against lowly Xavier.

Jim Barnett

Jim Barnett

Although the events occurred nearly five decades ago, “The Thin Thirty” ($18.95, Set Shot Press) paints an ugly portrait of college football at its absolute worst – a collection of young men exploited and brutalized by a coach and a university with warped priorities – and is bound to give many readers a new perspective on big-time college football. It also conveys an inspirational story of a team, many of whom were traumatized for life, that overcame the darkest chapter in the history of Kentucky athletics, to become a part of football history.

Ragland, with extensive chapter notes on sources and more than 100 interviews, does a stellar job in researching this dark period.

“In 2007, grown men cried when they discussed what happened to them, and these weren’t quitters or wimps by any means,” writes Ragland. “They were successes who had risen to the top of their chosen fields, including in law, medicine, engineering, coaching and the armed services. But they were still scarred by the verbal and physical abuses. This included not just the boys that left the team, but many members of the Thin Thirty, too.”

Of particular interest to wrestling fans is the book’s claims of a three-year period in Lexington, Ky., in which the erudite Barnett is purported to have provided numerous members of the team with perks in return for sexual favors. Barnett’s posh residence, according to the book, became a home away from campus for a number of players and a place where the mat matchmaker could do his own “recruiting.”

An entire chapter, titled “Predators in Their Midst,” is devoted to the sex scandal.

Barnett, who died in 2004 at the age of 80, was a man of diminutive stature who wore stylish three-piece suits and horn-rimmed glasses. A worldly man of old money, the flamboyant promoter’s passion for fine art, Mozart and penthouse living would lead a fellow Georgian, President Jimmy Carter, to appoint him to the National Council for the Arts during the 1970s.

Barnett rubbed elbows with leading figures in politics, business and the arts. His social circles included celebrities like Hudson and Liberace, politicians like Carter and U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, and scores of top athletes. Describing the exiguous Barnett, former NWA world champion Jack Brisco once said, “Jim looked like a character out of a Noel Coward play. But he was an unforgettable character.”

Barnett’s relationships with the movers and shakers of society helped him immensely with his wrestling business, to the point where few would challenge him. “He had a lot of political connections,” recalled one former associate. “He always maintained a working relationship with the police department, which was very important, and he always made sure that certain judges got very nice gifts, along with senators and state reps. That’s why he was so successful all these years keeping the athletic commission out (of wrestling).”

Despite being gay and effeminate in a business run by ex-jocks, it was in the world of professional wrestling where James E. Barnett enjoyed a far-reaching scope of influence. One of the most powerful and influential men in the industry over the past half-century, Barnett was an integral part of pro wrestling’s national television boom in the ’50s, oversaw a boom period in Australia during the ’60s, and worked with Ted Turner in the ’70s in bringing the sport to a new cable audience. Brokering some of the biggest transactions in wrestling history, including the sale of Crockett Promotions to Turner in 1988, the always-behind-the-scenes Barnett also was in on the grand floor of Vince McMahon’s national expansion in the mid-’80s.

But in 1959 in Lexington, writes Ragland, Barnett and longtime companion Lonnie Winter, with their fine clothes and deep pockets, cut quite a swath cruising the streets of the Kentucky town, looking for talent, in their fancy convertible Cadillac. It all started just that simple with a chance meeting between a gay wrestling promoter and a group of freshmen-to-be-footballers at the University of Kentucky, according to Ragland, and the following question posed by Barnett in a Southern drawl with perfectly strung-out diction: “Any of you boys want to go for a ride in my Cadillac?”

Barnett and Winter soon moved from an expensive hotel in downtown Lexington to an extravagant home on Lakewood Drive. Barnett, Ragland notes, would routinely send his car to fetch Hudson from the Cincinnati airport and bring him to the residence. Hudson, whose homosexuality was well-closeted at the time, would become a regular visitor at the home, where Barnett would invite the football players to lavish parties that would include all the steak, lobsters and delicacies they could eat, along with a bartender supplying ample amounts of liquor and sometimes even women serving as a backdrop.

Lexington, says Ragland, provided Hudson, the pillar of heterosexual masculinity of film, a place where he could fit in away from the glitz of Hollywood. And the Lakewood house was the place for a UK footballer to make easy money.

“What better draw for Lakewood was there than Rock Hudson? If he called and invited a player to attend a party, who could resist such an invitation? He was a movie star, a worldly and virile bon vivant … As remarkable as it was, Hudson quickly became involved with the UK football team and engaged in sexual relationships with them.”

Mixing money, booze, food and persuasion, a number of impressionable and vulnerable players succumbed, writes Ragland. The stars were on the payroll, and each year a new group of players would be introduced to the home on Lakewood Drive. Many of them were naive and considered it a game. But the free money, free trips, free clothes, free gifts didn’t come without a price.

The scandal had actually started during the tenure of coach Blanton Collier, before Bradshaw took the helm of the Kentucky program, although the book makes it clear that Collier never knew what was happening right under his nose.

Ragland also names former Atlanta Falcons head coach Leeman Bennett, an assistant under Bradshaw at the time, as having known about the Barnett connection to the team, suggesting he kept quiet assuming it was “boys being boys.” Bennett and other assistant, says Ragland, “had neither the will nor the power to end it – the scandal was viewed by them as just something that a few college boys were doing but that fundamentally it didn’t affect what happened on the field.”

Kentucky had been hit with a basketball points-shaving scandal a decade earlier and, to Bradshaw’s credit, he made it go away quietly when the sex and gambling incidents came to light. Fearing that another scandal could destroy the school’s athletics program, Bradshaw put an end to the practice.

According to the book, Barnett and Winter, whom Ragland claims enjoyed some level of police protection prior to the gambling scandal, left town quickly in 1963, “almost overnight, halfway around the world, and took their wrestling promotion to Australia.”

It was in that virgin territory where Barnett, who along with business partner Johnny Doyle sold their wrestling companies in the U.S., would oversee a period known as the “Golden Age of Wrestling.” Barnett would be involved in the wrestling business in some form or fashion until his death, although in later years only in a consultant’s role for both WCW and WWE.

NEWS AND NOTES: The Aug. 13 death of Brian “Crush” Adams was ruled a drug overdose. Toxicology tests revealed that Adams ingested “therapeutic levels” of buprenorphine, an opiate-based painkiller that is used in the treatment of painkiller addiction, carisoprodol (somas), and sedatives chlordiazepoxide and alprazolam. The death was ruled an accidental overdose due to the lethal mixture of prescribed medications. Adams had no anabolic steroids in his system at the time of his death. The 44-year-old wrestler wasn’t breathing when his wife found him unconscious in their Tampa home … Chris Jericho is expected to be on his way back to WWE.