An adversity-filled season for the Kentucky football program got even tougher this week when beloved UK offensive line coach John Schlarman tragically passed away on Thursday.
Diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma in the summer of 2018, the 45-year-old assistant and former UK player died following his two-year battle with cancer, leaving a hole in the foundation of the program’s “Big Blue Wall” built and developed by Schlarman when he joined Mark Stoops’ coaching staff in 2013.
“I’m heartbroken to learn about the passing of my friend, John Schlarman,” Stoops said in a statement Thursday morning. “My prayers go out to LeeAnne and the kids, Joseph, Benjamin, Matthew and Evelyn, through this very difficult time.
“John was everything we all strive to be – honest, tough, fair, respected. Kentucky football won’t be the same without him but his legacy will never fade. He was a fighter and we will strive every day to honor his warrior spirit.”
Two days after the passing, the UK football team was tasked with taking the field against the Vanderbilt Commodores in hopes of earning a much-needed victory to end its two-game losing streak.
Needless to say, it wasn’t easy, no matter the opponent or competition.
“It was an emotional week,” Stoops said following the team’s 38-35 victory over Vanderbilt. “It’s very different times for everybody, and then we’ve been hit with a few curve balls this year. Certainly very discouraging news this week with the passing of John. There was no getting around it, it was important to me and it was important to our team to win for them and to honor John and the man that he was, to continue his legacy.”
The team began the day by taking an intentional delay of game penalty immediately after kickoff, leaving Schlarman’s former position of left guard open. Upon Vanderbilt’s decision to decline the penalty, senior left tackle Landon Young entered the game sporting Schlarman’s No. 65, filling that hole back on the offensive line.
“It was a cumulative effort, the coaches wanted to go ahead and take the penalty and have a moment of silence for coach, show that we were missing a Wildcat,” Young said after the game. “We decided during pregame to bump Luke [Fortner] out to tackle for the very first play. Coach Schlarman was a guard when he played here, I know he’s always a guard at heart, so we wanted to leave that spot open to show where he played and represent that number well.”
“The emotion going through my mind was that we lost a member of our family,” Young added. “More than a member of our family, we lost our coach and a father figure to every single offensive lineman that has come through this program. We’re going to try to honor him any way we can, the impact and the influence he has on all of our lives. One of the toughest, greatest men I’ve ever had the chance to meet in my life. We left a spot out there because we’re missing one of our Wildcats today.”
We took a delay of game penalty to begin the game in loving memory of @CoachSchlarman 💙
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) November 14, 2020
The team followed up the gesture by rushing for a total of 308 rushing yards to go with zero sacks or tackles for loss allowed in the winning effort, an offensive line performance Schlarman almost certainly would have been proud of.
“The bottom line is we wanted to honor John by playing the way he coached, lived his life, and we constantly talked about the tenacity that he had, the toughness that he had, but also when he was a player he was extremely technical and very detailed,” Stoops said. “We knew we would be emotional, but I also really wanted to execute and really felt like offensively, we really played pretty sharp and had 460 yards on only 55 plays.”
“Coach Schlarman would want those guys to go out there and do what they do,” senior quarterback Terry Wilson added. “He wouldn’t want them to be pouting around and feeling sorry. That’s just the type of guy Coach Schlarman was, a tough dude and he wants his players to be tough.”
“We wanted to make sure we did what he would want us to do,” Young said. “I know he’s sitting up there watching us right now. Having the mentality and the grit he had, he would not want us sitting around and feeling sorry for ourselves for one second.”
Schlarman’s grit and toughness was documented well throughout his battle with cancer, with the veteran coach regularly attending practices just hours after treatment and coaching games when most in his shoes would spend their time resting.
“The man never [felt sorry for] himself even though he was pumping drugs into his body and, for goodness’ sakes, came out to practice just hours after having his first surgery a few weeks ago,” Young said. “The last thing he would want us to do is sit back and feel sorry for ourselves, miss a game, miss practice, not do this or that. That’s his mentality. He’s a tough man, loved the game of football.
“One of the last conversations I had with him, I asked, “Why do you do this? Why do you come out after surgery? Why do you bring this effort and this attitude?” His simple answer was, “For the team.” You can’t have a better answer than that. He was truly committed to the game of football and truly committed to each and every soul out on that field, what is best for us as men, furthering us as a football player and having the best opportunity out there.”
The relationship between Young and Schlarman was established over eight years ago when the Kentucky senior was a freshman in high school. After attending several UK football camps and realizing his status as a legitimate Division I prospect, the offensive line coach took over as Young’s lead recruiter and never looked back.
Eight years later, Schlarman had firmly cemented himself as a father figure in Young’s life, developing the Lexington, KY native not only as a player, but as a man.
“I always knew I wanted to play for Coach Schlarman, just the man he was,” Young said. “The same guy you get on the field, you get off the field. Day one, he took me under his wing, he wanted me to feel comfortable with him and was a father figure. He wanted to develop me as a man, develop my character, and I think he’s done a dang good job of it.”
Schlarman’s impact extended well beyond the offensive line, as well. Though he took pride in coaching and developing his position group, his contagious work ethic and mindset spread throughout the roster every time he walked into the football facilities.
“No matter who you were or what position you played, everybody loved Coach Schlarman,” Young said. “He was a guy everybody could get along with, he always brought the attitude, always brought the mentality.”
No matter how difficult his situation was or the pain he was dealing with, he never let it show. Even in the final week or two of his fight, the team-first mindset remained intact.
“We had the opportunity to go see Coach Schlarman I reckon about a week before he passed away, me, [Darian Kinnard], Drake [Jackson] and Luke [Fortner],” Young continued. “I knew it was getting pretty bad at that point, but when we walked in there, he talked nothing but football. Saying, “Man, you guys really got after them against Georgia, keep your heads high, keep swinging.”
“He texted all of us and said, “I miss you, I wish I was out there, I’m sorry that I’m not.” For a man going through everything that he is, him saying he was sorry for not being there, that hits hard. That man gave everything he had to this game. I couldn’t ask for a better coach to spend my last eight years with.”
One of the best lessons Schlarman ever taught Young was that your number can be called at any moment, with that mindset extending outside of football and into life.
How you prepare for that moment and the way you respond is what matters.
“He showed us that it’s okay for things to go bad in life. It’s 10 percent what happens to you, 90 percent of how you react. He’s a face for that model,” Young said. “… He always told us, “One day your number is going to get called, and you don’t know when that is.” He tried to correlate that to life, and he correlated that to football. Freshman year at The Swamp, I had no idea that I was going to end up being thrown in as a freshman down there, but my number got called and I had to step up to it.”
For Schlarman, he was ready for the moment when his number was called.
“Same thing with Coach Schlarman and his life, he didn’t know when his number was going to be called to come up to heaven and go see our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. His number was called, and he was ready. His soul was ready, his heart was ready.
“It’s selfish for us, we want him down here, but he’s no longer suffering and he left a great legacy around here.”