By: Larry Vaught
Former Kentucky tight end James Whalen is thrilled to have been named a SEC Legend who will be honored at Atlanta in December during the SEC championship weekend. However, one thing about his UK career still bothers him — UK’s loss to Syracuse in the Music City Bowl after the 1999 season. Whalen had four catches for 80 yards midway through the first quarter. Kentucky had a 7-0 lead and was driving for another score when Whalen dislocated his elbow after his fourth catch.
“I will be on my death bed and still be angry about that deal,” said Whalen, who now lives in Aledo, Texas with his wife and two children. “We were fixing to win. Me and (quarterback) Dusty (Bonner) were in a groove. We had an amazing game plan set up. The Syracuse defense was confused and did not know what was going on.
“Seven minutes into the first quarter I had four catches for 80 yards. I caught the ball, Will Allen hit me and I landed on my hand. My elbow bent the wrong way. We settled for a field goal and after that the offense just stopped. I am still a little upset if you can’t tell.”
Kentucky lost 20-13 to end Whalen’s fairy-tale career at Kentucky.
He had no major college scholarship offers after his prep career in Oregon and played one year at Shasta Junior College in California before his father got transferred from Portland to Covington, Ky. His parents were not thrilled about the “educational level” of what Whalen was doing at Shasta and offered to help him pay for school if he changed schools.
The first place he went with the highlight tape his mother made was Kentucky and he happened to get a chance to meet with then coach Hal Mumme.
“I also knew Kentucky had a great quarterback named (Tim) Couch. I just thought it would be a great opportunity,” Whalen said. “I think Hal was excited to have me, but none of us anticipated the way things would work out how they did. There’s a lot of timing involved in life.”
He played in 33 games at Kentucky. As a sophomore, he had seven catches. The next year he was converted from wide receiver to tight end and had 23 catches and three touchdowns. His senior year he turned into an All-American with 90 catches for 1,019 yards and 10 touchdowns. He led tight ends nationally in all three categories.
The only other UK players with a 1,000-yard receiving season are Craig Yeast, Stevie Johnson, Keenan Burton and Randall Cobb. Johnson, Burton and Cobb all did it after Whalen.
He tries to watch Kentucky play as often as he can but admits it has been hard because of the team’s struggles. Kentucky went to the Outback Bowl and Music City Bowl in Whalen’s last two seasons.
“I want them to be good. When I was there I wondered why Kentucky could not be highly competitive in two sports. Basketball is big business and I get that, but we were winning seven or eight games a year and being competitive,” Whalen sad. “To watch them not being competitive is very disheartening.
“They are spending good money on facilities and coaches. It just not make sense not to be winning. I understand players win games. Coaches get all this money, but if they do not get players, they do not win. (John) Calipari is a great basketball coach, but his best attribute is his recruiting. If you get players, you usually win. It’s not complicated.”