LEXINGTON, Ky. - Tim Couch left the game to a standing ovation. He left the field to a serenade.
The Kentucky band was playing "Rhapsody In Blue" as the players walked to their dressing room, but hundreds of fans wanted to be heard above the gorgeous Gershwin notes. They called to their quarterback - deity from the south end of Commonwealth Stadium, "One more year. . . one more year," until Couch turned his crooked grin to the crowd and waved.
It was an exit scene that invited encores, a plaintive plea that Couch complete his college football eligibility. The Wildcats had whipped Vanderbilt 55-17 but UK's sense of triumph was tempered by the fear that Couch had thrown his last pass before the home fans. There is so much money for the junior quarterback to make, and so little left for him to prove that to linger in Lexington would seem almost silly.
"In a situation like this, you really have to do what's best for yourself," Couch said. "You have to be selfish."
For two seasons, no football program in America has been more committed to the personal interests of a single player than Kentucky. Former UK coach Bill Curry might have kept his job had he been more careful about cultivating Couch's talent, and current UK coach Hal Mumme was hired primarily because of his grasp of the passing game.
Rhapsody in Blue
Tim Couch was worth it, well worth it. He is the kind of quarterback Kentucky gets maybe once in a generation, maybe once in a millennium. He has made a bowl team out of a basketball stepchild and filled seats that had been vacant for decades. He has been a Rhapsody in Blue.
"He's elevated our program," Mumme said Saturday. "He ought to get a lot of consideration for the Heisman and all the awards. I don't think you can find one player in America who has elevated a program more than he has."
Couch completed 44 out of 53 pass attempts against the Commodores on Saturday for 492 yards, and the wonder of it was that he did nothing really special.
He missed some early reads, suffered three interceptions, made some bad choices under duress and threw more gentle lobs than lasers. Against his exalted standards, he was only average.
"Coach Mumme got on me," Couch said. "He asked if I knew No. 44 (Vanderbilt's Lamont Turner) personally because I kept throwing him the ball."
So profound is the change in UK football that coaches can now quibble with quarterbacks who throw five touchdown passes. Tim Couch has spoiled a whole state. Next, he is bound to break its heart.
"Toward the end of the game, I got thinking, 'Is this going to be my last game in Commonwealth?' " Couch said. "I really don't know if it will be. . . . It's kind of neat to see that people care what I'm going to do."
Most UK fans are already resigned to Couch's departure, but some still hope they can get to his heart. When No. 2 walked out for the coin flip Saturday, a professionally printed banner hung from the stands in his field of vision.
"Come Back Deuce," it read. "Don't Cut Us Loose!"
Couch would throw 16 passes before the first one hit the ground. One of them was intercepted by Turner, but the rest suggested a grown man playing with small boys. Couch would stand back in the pocket until one of his receivers broke free, and then he'd flip the ball on their fingers as softly as a snowflake.
"Tim was fabulous today," said UK's Craig Yeast, who set a school record with 16 receptions. "We just racked up the catches and racked up the yards. . . . He just throws a very catchable ball."
Some pro scouts fret about the velocity of Couch's passes or about his ability to throw the deep ball, but his touch is tender and his aim is accurate. He is like Joe Montana in that way, only larger.
"I knew last year he was the top quarterback in the nation," Vanderbilt receiver Tavarus Hogans said Saturday. "Fifty-five points - the scoreboard says what we should think about Tim Couch."
What Kentucky fans think of Tim Couch is this: They expect him to be the first draft choice of the new Cleveland Browns next spring. Some spectators sought to influence Couch's decision Saturday by reminding him of Cleveland's climate.
"Tim asked me about Cleveland," said UK halfback Anthony White. "I told him it gets cold, but the fans are loyal."
If they get this guy, they should have reason to rejoice.
Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at firstname.lastname@example.org.