LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — John Schlarman believed in Kentucky football when the fashionable thing to do was kick Kentucky football.
Did it once as a player. Did it again as a coach.
Schlarman did it day after day after day, even when the cancer that started attacking his body in 2018 had to be telling Schlarman to take a knee.
Schlarman never took a knee, all the way through the moment he died Thursday. He was only 45.
Without Schlarman, the joy, the grit and the success that Kentucky football has delivered during the Mark Stoops era would not have been the same. Not close.
That’s because Schlarman was a Kentucky guy, a former player who married the daughter (LeeAnne) of a former Kentucky player, Joe Federspiel of DeSales High School. Schlarman believed in Kentucky football as much as anybody could.
"The Great American." That is the nickname that Stoops said the Kentucky football staff hung on Schlarman.
"It’s hard to state the impact he had on me, the staff and our players," Stoops said.
Schlarman was a difference maker. The only things larger than his sideline-to-sideline shoulders and sideline-to-sideline smile was his belief in Kentucky football.
He showed it as a player, committing to the Wildcats from Fort Thomas Highlands High School to play for Bill Curry in 1994, when Kentucky had not won more than six games in nearly a decade.
Schlarman moved into the starting lineup by his second season. He completed three seasons under Curry and then finished his career for another coach (Hal Mumme), whose system required a different blocking style. Didn’t matter. Schlarman excelled. He was voted first-team all-Southeastern Conference at offensive tackle at a time when Kentucky rarely had a first-teamer.
Fort Thomas Highlands stars like Jared Lorenzen and Derek Smith saw the success that Schlarman had at Kentucky and followed him to Lexington.
They saw that Schlarman believed in Kentucky football. They weren’t the last ones to see that. The football world has seen it, too, from the moment that Stoops added Schlarman to his original staff on the recommendation of former offensive coordinator Neal Brown.
"We hit it off immediately," Stoops said. "It was a no-brainer."
Look at the fabulous work Schlarman did with the offensive line, getting guys to believe the way that he believed.
Logan Stenberg was ranked the 27th-best player in the state of Alabama as well as the 75th-best offensive tackle in his recruiting class. Schlarman turned him into one of the best tackles in the SEC.
Luke Fortner was ranked the 68th-best player in the state of Ohio. Schlarman has coached him into being one of the best interior linemen in the league.
Not everybody was an overachiever. The power of Schlarman’s personality, along with the performance of his offensive lines, convinced more of the best players in the state to do what he did — stay home and play for the Wildcats.
Landon Young did it. Drake Jackson did it.
Jedrick Wills almost did it. Yes, Wills picked Alabama over Kentucky out of Lexington Lafayette High School in November 2016. Saying, "No," to Schlarman had to be difficult. The man left an impression.
Guess who was one of the people who texted his love for Schlarman to Mark Stoops on Thursday?
"When you meet somebody like John, how could you not love him?" Stoops said.
John Schlarman wasn’t a guy who believed in tricks or gimmicks. He believed in the old-fashioned way of improvement — player by player, season by season, practice by practice, drill by drill.
Over the last two seasons, even as he fought cancer, Schlarman developed offensive lines considered among the best in the nation. They enabled Kentucky to win more games than a program should be able to win when it cannot pass the football.
"I don’t think there is any question the offensive line has the identity of John," Stoops said.
No shortcuts. No excuses. No surrender.
Just go to work — even while the cancer and the chemotherapy raged in his body. Schlarman was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer) in the summer of 2018. He refused to miss a game until Oct. 24 of this year.
What could be more inspiring?
"We will work extremely hard to honor his legacy for years to come," Stoops said. "I want to coach as if John is with me, standing next to me."
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