The Next Big Shot

The Next Big Shot

By Dr. John Huang

(NICHOLASVILLE, Ky.) – Scott Smith walks triumphantly off the 18th green of The Champions course at Keene Trace Golf Club in Nicholasville, Kentucky. His smile says it all. The affable 64-year-old dentist from Pikeville, and a big UK sports fan, has just fulfilled a once-in-a-lifetime dream by playing in his first professional golf tournament.

Although the pro-am portion of the 2021 Barbasol Championships isn’t technically part of the official Thursday through Sunday rounds, Scott realizes this will be as close as he ever gets to experiencing PGA glory firsthand. He and his playing partner, Gary Brown—a Paintsville dentist—have just spent the last six hours in paradise, crushing towering drives, sinking crucial putts, and hobnobbing and trading strokes and jokes with comedian Scott Henry and tour professionals Joseph Bramlett and Greg Chalmers.

Barbasol Championship Pro-AM “A” Team pictured left to right: Gary Brown, Scott Smith, Joseph Bramlett (pro), Scott Henry (comedian), and Silvio Dalessandri. Not pictured: Greg Chalmers (pro). (Photo Credit Barbasol Championship)

For a man whose passion for golf can’t be overstated, this ethereal experience is as close to heaven on earth as Scott can imagine. His wife, Jenny, jokingly told me that Scott’s long-term goal was simply to retire with just enough money so that he could play golf the rest of his life. For George Scott Smith and other serious golf junkies, that’s the best and only reason for growing your 401K.

If you think, however, that is just another ordinary run-of-the-mill, feel-good golf story, then think again. Because life is fragile for all of us, especially right now for Scott and Jenny. Just a week before this past Christmas, the couple received the medical diagnosis that nobody wants to hear. A CT scan had revealed a tumor on Scott’s pancreas that subsequently metastasized to his liver. The prognosis for stage 4 pancreatic cancer is understandably dire. Without treatment, the experts tell Scott that he has six months to a year and a half to live. Even with appropriate chemotherapy, the average life expectancy only stretches out to about three years.

Sadly, those of us who have been around for a while are all too familiar with stories of family members and friends unfairly stricken down in their prime. In those moments, life can feel overwhelming—like an inopportune slice, or more appropriately, like one big shank. If we’re honest, we’ve all given thought to how we ourselves might react when confronted with our own mortality. Would we cower in fear, fall apart, and shake our fist at God and cry out, “Why me?”

“The emotions are incredible,” Scott recalled, when explaining how he felt when the doctor delivered the news. “The first thing you think of is your children and your wife—how they are going to be and how you’re going to leave them. You also think about what you’re going to be going through and how this can be possible. I was a healthy individual who did basically everything. I snow skied, I played racquetball, and I played golf, so how can I be sick? That’s almost incomprehensible.”

Boyhood Dreams

Scott, a father of two grown boys, was born in Pikeville to a homemaker mom and a dad who owned a Chevron gas station. He pumped gas at the station beginning when he was twelve and quickly realized he didn’t want to do that for the next fifty years. While most of his teenage friends at the time had unrealistic dreams of playing Major League Baseball, Scott knew exactly where his career was headed.

“I went to the dentist when I was in the 8th grade,” Scott explained. “I said, ‘This is great. I love this. I think this would be something I’d be interested in doing.’ And believe it or not, I ended up doing it. How many people in the 8th grade think they know what they want to do and end up actually doing it? That’s pretty unusual.”

Here’s what else was unusual. Scott was an exceptional athlete in high school. He played in four different sports—basketball, football, track, and baseball—which all sent teams to the state tournament. When it came time to pick a college, he was accepted into West Point but turned down the prestigious military academy because he knew he wanted to go to dental school. Four years as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky followed by an additional four years at the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry (Class of ’84), and those prescient, 8th-grader plans for a career in dentistry suddenly materialized into reality.

Returning to his Pikeville roots, Scott started his hometown dental practice from scratch. Thirty-six years later, he was still practicing full time—up until the fateful cancer diagnosis—providing much-needed dental care for the good citizens of Pike County in eastern Kentucky. During many of those three decades, Scott worked tirelessly in his office from Monday morning until Thursday at noon. Then it was off to the local links for the rest of the extended weekend to focus on his ultimate passion—playing golf.

Passionate Beginnings

That passion started early on. Scott remembers asking for a set of clubs for Christmas when he was about twelve years old.

“Neither of my parents knew much about golf,” he said. “They got me a five iron. That was it. They bought me a single club.”

The Smith family didn’t belong to the highfalutin country club when Scott was growing up either. They had to drive thirty miles to Jenny Wiley State Park in order to play. Scott piddled around with his clubs in high school but didn’t really play seriously until he got to UK, where he finally had access to several quality golf courses.

When asked what about the game got him so hooked, the overachiever in Scott became readily apparent.

“It’s so competitive, and yet you can play by yourself,” he admitted. “You’re always trying to beat par. It’s something that you can never achieve perfection with. There is no such thing. That just enthralled me. There is no finish line.”

“I go to bed thinking about golf.” (Photo Credit Barbasol Championship)

Warning signs

The worrisome symptoms began last summer with occasional bouts of constipation and diarrhea. Hoping it was all just diet related, Scott put off seeing a doctor thinking the discomfort would eventually pass. When the home remedies didn’t work and the digestive problems started escalating, Jenny finally convinced him to seek medical advice.

“Two days after I had my scan done, my family physician called me,” Scott recounted. “He said, ‘I need to see you in the office first thing on Monday morning.’”

Scott and Jenny knew the news would not be good. Two weeks later, just a few days after Christmas, they were in Baltimore seeing a specialist at Johns Hopkins Medical. With five additional malignant spots on his liver, Scott’s condition was deemed inoperable, and he was sent back to Lexington for a clinical trial at UK’s Markey Cancer Center.

For the spouse and other loved ones, the cancer treatment experience can be surreal. Actually it’s more like a living hell—often more so for the spouse than for the one who is actually ill. Listening to Jenny describe the agonizing six weeks of the pulverizing nature of the clinical trial is guaranteed to bring tears to even the most calloused eye. Seeing your loved one—once so vibrant, active, and full of life—endure brutal cycles of unending malaise, nausea and vomiting, brain fog, and radical weight loss zaps you to the core of your very own existence. Your mind can go to some pretty dark places during those times.

However, just when things appeared hopeless, there came a small ray of sunshine. Out of the blue, Scott received an unexpected surprise.

Augusta Here We Come!

It’s often deemed the toughest ticket in sports. People wanting to witness the beauty and pageantry of Augusta National often wait decades before getting a fleeting chance to buy those golden tickets. Miraculously, Scott was there to witness The Masters with his own eyes in April of this year. How, you ask?

“Some buddies from my college Sigma Chi fraternity all got together and did that for me,” Scott answered. “They got me the entry tickets. They even provided a house for my family. I got to take both of my boys. I got to go with Jenny. One day I got to go with Jenny’s son, Evan. It was unreal. That is something I would never do for myself. It’s something I dreamed of but would never pull the trigger on myself.”

For Scott, watching the best players in the world play up close and personal was a fascinating experience. With Covid protocols still in place, attendance was limited, so the lucky patrons on the golf course could literally rub elbows with all the players. Television coverage also doesn’t do the course justice—especially the dramatic elevation changes. Because it’s so hilly, Scott had no choice but to ride around in a scooter (a motorized wheelchair) in his weakened state.

A memorable moment occurred when Scott and a fellow scooter rider struck up a conversation. The other man was missing both his feet. After sharing their stories, Scott discovers the man had his feet amputated because of diabetes.

“He told me he liked Chips Ahoy cookies more than his feet,” Scott said. “We then joked about racing around the course in our carts.”

The man happened to be the father of Bryson DeChambeau—the winner of the 2020 US Open. How cool was that?

Jenny describes the entire Masters experience differently. Scott felt sick most of the time. For Jenny, it was hauntingly bittersweet: an opportunity of a lifetime tempered by the specter of a sick spouse, a ticking time clock, and a terminal illness. We get it. How could anyone fully appreciate the azaleas in bloom, Amen Corner, and the iconic pimiento cheese sandwiches at a time like this?

Another Bucket List Opportunity

After six weeks of the merciless clinical trial, a new CT scan indicated a 30-percent shrinkage of the pancreatic tumor. Unfortunately, additional lesions had metastasized to the liver, so Scott was kicked out of the experimental group.

He’s now back on a standard chemotherapeutic regimen for pancreatic cancer. He’s completed three rounds so far and is scheduled for three more rounds every other Tuesday. Then they’ll do another CT scan to determine how effective the treatment has been.

Luckily, this pro-am Wednesday fell squarely between chemo treatments, and Scott was feeling fairly spry. He’s put on some much-needed weight and doesn’t feel tired all the time like he did at Augusta. Never one to seek the spotlight, he was worried about how this feature story would unfold. But how he ended up here at the Barbasol is the one tale he eagerly wanted to tell.

“The guys at my golf club back home all got together and pitched in and knew that this would be a bucket list thing for me to participate in something like this,” Scott explained. “And literally they all got in and chipped in and paid for my entry fee.”

The guys he’s talking about belong to the Green Meadow Country Club in Pikeville. And although the $7500 pairing fee is significant, it’s not just the monetary amount that makes Scott so appreciative. It’s the act of friendship that speaks volumes to him. Gary Brown, his former dental school classmate and playing partner today, had called the guys at the country club to set the wheels in motion.

“When they first told me I would be playing in the Barbasol, I thought for sure they were pulling a joke on me,” Scott reluctantly admitted. “Then when I found out that it was true, I just was overwhelmed. The thought of friendship that deep is pretty amazing. It’s something that I would never do for myself. For me to do this on my own, I would feel like it’s very selfish and ridiculous. But for something they would do for me, it just blows me away. Absolutely makes me weak.”

Scott Smith and Gary Brown, University of Kentucky College of Dentistry, Class of 1984 (Photo Credit John Huang)

Faith to the Rescue

What struck me most when speaking with Scott Smith was just how calm he’s been during this whole ordeal. There’s a peaceful countenance about him that’s hard for many to understand. It truly is a peace that surpasses all understanding. After all, who can grasp why tragedies like this happen to such good people? I asked Scott to explain it to me.

“I’m in a real good place in my mind as far as that goes,” he readily conceded. “Faith is huge and very important to me. I know that things happen for a reason and we’re all here for a certain amount of time. I feel really good about whatever’s coming. Truthfully, I’m okay with it.”

Not only is he okay with it, but Scott—who calls Southland Christian his church home—has never questioned these timeless spiritual mysteries. He’s never been one to wallow in self-pity or direct his anger towards his heavenly creator.

“Oddly enough not yet,” he pushed back. “Hopefully, that won’t happen. I haven’t been through the ‘why me’ and ‘this isn’t fair.’ I haven’t gone through those emotions. Maybe I will. I honestly don’t know why I’m in this situation. Just the cards you’re dealt. Everybody is on a different playing field. I remember telling Jenny years ago that I wanted to enjoy life and experience different things and different places with her. I said, ‘You never know when you might get hit by a bus.’ This may be my bus. So now we’re trying to do as many things as we can and experience as much as possible while we can.”

Jenny

The Barbasol Pro-Am certainly qualifies as one of those special experiences Scott talks about. One of the most exciting rounds of his life gets off to a bit of shaky start, but Scott soon finds his groove. A tricky five-foot putt for a birdie on eleven, an artistic chip out of the sand to within three feet of the cup on twelve, and Scott quickly settles into his element. It’s readily apparent to all that he’s played this game before.

Scott’s biggest fan is his lovely wife, Jenny. She walks the entire 18 holes—a six-and-a-half-hour marathon round under the blazing afternoon sun—silently screaming for her husband’s ball to find every fairway, to gently plop on every green, and to get in every hole. She knows how much this day means to Scott.

The two met on a blind date, and about a year-and-a-half later they were married. It’s been wedded bliss for the couple for the past ten years—until the bus arrived.

It’s been a helluva bus ride for Jenny this past year also. She lost her mom, had another dear friend die unexpectedly, watched another family member battle colon cancer…and now this. I look at her radiant smile, and I wonder how she does it. I need to know. I ask her about it point blank.

“I often sense God’s presence, and sometimes I really think he speaks to me,” she answered unhesitantly. “He said, ‘I chose you to be with Scott, during this time of his life.’”

Devout faith, divine guidance, unconditional love…we should all be so lucky.

Scott and Jenny Smith. (Photo Credit John Huang)

Scott

He’s exhausted but exhilarated. Who wouldn’t be after playing with a couple of tour professionals, of having your name announced on the first tee, and of seeing the skyboxes surrounding the greens and cameras everywhere?

I asked Scott what stood out to him the most.

“My great appreciation goes out to my Green Meadow Country Club pals who made everything possible with their generosity,” he said. “[Also] sharing the experience with my wife. Having my two boys, Max and Hunter, surprise me by being there. They saw me facing the final hole. My tee shot over the lake, crossed safely, even landing on the green. I knew God was looking over me. I felt blessed to have such a great experience. Thank you, Lord!”

Scott Smith and sons, Hunter and Max. (Photo Credit Jenny Smith)

There are a lot of parallels between golf and life. The more time you have, the better you get at both. For most people, it takes patience, resolve, and a heavy dose of wisdom to navigate both courses successfully. Occasionally for people like Scott, the two worlds intersect to provide valuable life lessons for finishing strong.

“The golf course has always been an outlet of peace and a place for me to go to forget about things,” Scott clarified. “You learn to concentrate on just your golf game and the next shot. I won’t know what my next shot will be until the next CT scan comes out. But that’s the way I look at it. That’ll be my next shot. It’ll let us know what road we’re headed down, what fairway we’re in, or if we hit the green or not, or if we’re in the sand trap.”

Scott holds it together until the end of our visit when the talk circles back to his mortality and his time left on earth. He wants to say something to the people he’ll leave behind. His thoughts appear to scramble as he struggles to find the right words.

“Take care of Jenny,” he finally blurts out, his eyes overflowing with tears. “She’s been incredible. To take care of her. That would be the thing that I would hope the most for. She’s taken care of me. And I knew she could, and I knew she would. But to see her doing what she’s doing—it’s pretty amazing.”

If God hands out mulligans in life, I’ll ask for one right here. Prayers up! Stop the bus. It’s time for the next big shot.

Scott Smith with his next big shot. (Photo Credit Barbasol Championship)

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist and military veteran. He covers University of Kentucky and professional sports for Nolan Group Media, Sports View America, and JustTheCats.com. His book “Cut To The Chase” is now available on amazon. His newest release, “Kentucky Passion—Wildcat Wisdom and Inspiration,” is scheduled for October (IU Press).

Name, Image, And Likene$$

Name, Image, And Likene$$

Don’t get me started on this topic. I’m likely to say something I’ll later regret. But for the time being, as far as name, image, and likeness (NIL) is concerned, I’M AGAINST IT!

Now I’m not against individuals making money. After all, this is America. If you’re cunning enough and motivated enough and talented enough, you can make all the money you want.

I’m also not against college athletes having a little extra change in their pockets. They certainly deserve it for all the blood, sweat, and tears they put in the gym perfecting their craft. I just don’t want some pie-in-the sky statute regarding fairness and equity ruining the college game we’ve all grown to love. Football Saturdays and March Madness weekends are part of my sports DNA. Please, don’t do anything to screw it up.

Before you accuse me of being a self-centered loser, here’s a little background information for those of you who aren’t quite sure where I’m coming from.

What is NIL?

The NCAA recently enacted legislation allowing student-athletes in college to benefit and profit off of their names, images, and likenesses. It was a reluctant move by the much-maligned governing organization which—for the past few decades—has profited heavily from the cash cow directly generated by those who they allegedly claim to serve.

Over the years, the NCAA (and the conferences and schools it presides over) has raked in millions and millions of dollars in gate receipts and television revenue while the athletes themselves aren’t allowed to participate in any of the free-for-all money grab going on around them. Supposedly, these football and basketball prodigies hammer away as indentured servants. They allegedly don’t have extra money to eat at McDonalds, to go on dates, or even to do their laundry (cue in violin music, please). All the while, the overlording rule-makers stare greedily at their own bank accounts bulging at the seams.  

So why did the NCAA finally reverse course and cave?

Public pressure for one. When individual states (including Kentucky) started enacting legislation giving student-athletes free rein to cash in on autograph signings, appearances on Cameo, and t-shirts and sponsorships bearing their faces, the Big Bad NCAA and its president—Mark “Darth” Emmert—was forced into action.

Why Everybody Loves NIL

Everyone (but me) seems to be applauding and cheering on this new legislation. Coaches like Mark Stoops and John Calipari have both put on happy public faces. They really don’t have any choice but to clap loudly, or else they’ll come off looking like jerks. Think about it. If you’re making millions coaching these young men, you have to feel obligated to give them a little extra piece of the pie—or you really are a jerk.

Media people all seem to love the decision too. They see themselves as the ones anointed to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and the release from darkness for the prisoners. They’re all celebrating (at least outwardly) the clarion call of all these previously oppressed athletes rising up on a level playing field and sticking it to “The Man.”

Of course the athletes themselves are ecstatic. “It’s long overdue,” they cry. “Here we come. Better put a few more Big Macs on the grill.”

Why I Don’t Like NIL

Here’s the way I look at it. The NCAA set up and organized the platform for all the players to compete. They put in the effort, took the initial risk, financed the infrastructure, made all the network deals, and promoted the heck out of their product over all these years. Why shouldn’t they continue to reap the fruits of their labor? If athletes can get a better deal somewhere else, then just go outside the system and do it. No one’s stopping you.

NIL Cheapens the Value of a Scholarship

If you’re telling me that a free-ride lifetime athletic scholarship isn’t an overly fair tradeoff for playing the game you love, then you’re  devaluing the worth of a college degree. My parents, frugal as they were, advised me to spend money freely on two things: my home and my education. I’m proud to say that my UK degree remains to this day my most valuable asset.

I also just spent a small fortune putting my daughter through a private out-of-state university. If the University of Southern California had offered to pay for all her tuition, books, room and board, private tutoring, first class travel, deluxe hotel accommodations, and state-of-the-art medical care for her entire four-year stay, I would have gladly kissed the feet of Tommy Trojan (and retired earlier).

Current UK athletes should value their education in the exact same vein. The University of Kentucky, with its rabid Big Blue Nation, has already increased the value of their individual names, images, and likenesses—several fold—just by inviting them into the successful UK corporate brand. They’ve just been given the best education money can buy—without having to plunk down a single penny.

NIL Invites Too Many Outside Influences

And yet, even with this glorious free ride, everyone demands that these student-athletes share in the pot. As I said earlier, that’s fine with me—just not at the expense of choking the golden goose that has fueled our appetite for amateur sports as we know it. Unscrupulous agents descending on campus, rival deals between teammates dismantling team chemistry, and member institutions losing significant portions of their revenue stream to boosters paying the athletes directly could all potentially upset the apple cart.

And this doesn’t even include what could happen in the media world. Imagine a scenario where the best player appearances, the best player interviews, the best of anything media related always goes exclusively to the highest bidder. If you’re an outlet with cash to burn, then you’ll control the flow of information. That type of police state can’t be good for the game (unless you’re JMI Sports—UK’s current multi-media partner). And that certainly doesn’t bode well for all the other legitimate and hard-working journalists scrambling for their livelihoods to report news and maintain accountability.

To me, all these risks simply aren’t worth it for what amounts to the nickel and dime benefits that NIL legislation targets. Many ivory tower purists will argue that it should come down to what’s best for the student-athlete. Here’s where it gets hairy because what appears good on the surface is what could ultimately cause the entire system to crash and burn.

The Ultimate Demise

I never played college sports, but I do listen to people who did. The other night, while I was waiting to go on as a guest on Dick Gabriel’s Big Blue Insider radio show, I heard some insightful comments from the guest who was on ahead of me. Former UK linebacker Kash Daniel, who could have personally benefitted immensely if NIL had been enacted during his playing days, had these extremely perceptive thoughts.

“Scheduling is one of the biggest challenges these programs are going to face,” Kash said. “Playing college athletics at the Division I level, no matter what sport it is, is a full-time job—plus going to school. When you’re not in class or with tutors or anything that requires your academic attention, you’re in practice, you’re in treatment, you’re in extra study hall, you’re watching extra film. You’re literally doing everything you can to be the best player you can be…I don’t really know how you could do [NIL activities] during the season.”

“It really just comes down to the administrators, the head coaches, the team captains to say, ‘Hey, this is great. We get to make a little extra coin off our name now. But remember why we’re here. Remember that we still play for the University of Kentucky, we still play for Coach Stoops, and we still play for one another.’”

College coaches, like Calipari and Stoops, have always harped endlessly about player distractions—friends and family whispering in your ear, girlfriend problems, impending career choices, and mental health challenges all vying for those precious 24 hours in your day. NIL could easily become the TOP distraction. Remember, these ARE student-athletes. Their focus needs to be in the classroom and on the court—not on making money, analyzing contracts, and paying taxes. They don’t need the stress of another full-time job. They should enjoy their college experience—perhaps the best four years of their life—without having to compete with fellow teammates for a table at the next car dealership giveaway.

The truth is that NIL will not be a good thing for the majority of student-athletes. It’s an additional headache that will simply not be worth it.

It certainly won’t be worth it if it messes up my Football Saturdays, my College World Series, or my NCAA tournament. Everyone agrees that there are already plenty of outside influences affecting the purity of the college game. Welcome now to the Wild Wild West. NIL could be like that thief in the night, signaling for all of us the beginning of the end.

Granted, for those very few uber-talented student-athletes who are graced with wise outside counsel, these next few months could provide for a significant personal financial windfall. More power to them.

My prayer is that for the rest of us mortals in the sporting world, NIL proves eventually to be much ado about nothing.

The Most Interesting UK Basketball Player In The World

The Most Interesting UK Basketball Player In The World

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Just last week, I participated on a media videoconference featuring the newest addition to the UK basketball roster. Savhir Wheeler, a transfer from Georgia who led the SEC in assists last season, knocked it out of the park with all the media members in attendance. The 5’10” guard was engaging, articulate, and knowledgeable when responding to the various reporter queries. In a virtual world fraught with one-sentence answers and predictably canned responses, I left the twenty-minute session thoroughly impressed.

That got me to thinking: what are some individual qualities that make for an interesting player interview? Or more specifically, who were the players that are considered the best interviews ever in the history of Kentucky Basketball?

Those are certainly tough questions to answer, especially for a media novice like me. I’ve only been at it for the past five or six years, so my knowledge is circumspect and my experience a bit limited. Plus, who’s to say what makes for a great interview?

I can say that during my short time on the beat, the sophisticated eloquence of a Reid Travis or the infectious personality of a Tyrese Maxey certainly stand out. But to even come up with a partially inclusive list, I knew I’d have to dive deeply into the history of the program.

Who better to do that than Alan Cutler and Larry Vaught? The two media stalwarts are older than dirt, but they’re also uniquely gifted at doing what they do best—drawing meaningful responses and getting great answers from those being interviewed. They operated, however, under two somewhat different parameters.

For Cutler—the iconic, longtime LEX18 anchor and reporter—honesty and trust were at the top of his list. He learned early on that trust between media and players worked both ways. He had to first gain the players’ trust before he could even attempt to penetrate their outer shell. Only afterwards would they then start telling him things that they wouldn’t have otherwise revealed.

Rex Chapman has been the most honest interview at UK for me,” Alan admitted. “He’s not afraid to be vulnerable and tell the world how he really feels, even if it hurts.”

That same type of honesty and vulnerability could be found in two other Cutler favorites, both cut from the same cloth.

Ed Davender—I would purposely ask him tough questions because he could handle it,” Cutler explained.  “We both come from Brooklyn. I don’t think anyone else at UK called me Cutler to my face. It still hurts anytime I hear his name. He should have played in the NBA forever.

“As for Jamal Mashburn, he was tough—a strong New Yorker. He told me in his first interview that being a successful businessman was his road after basketball. BINGO!”

Larry Vaught—a seven-time winner of the Kentucky Sportswriter of the Year award—had a slightly different ranking system. For him, relatability and spontaneity were the attributes he most valued.

Willie Cauley-Stein once told Larry that he could not go to the NBA because he would have to figure out where to eat and pay his bills on his own if he did. Likewise, the lovable Melvin Turpin once revealed to Larry going into Rupp Arena that if he messed up in game, Coach Hall was going to make him run stairs during the game—and he believed it.

Those types of answers are always endearing—and anticipating the unexpected is something every reporter relishes. If only the players of today would more often speak their minds.

“With Dirk Minniefield, you never knew what he would say,” Vaught volunteered. “And with DeMarcus Cousins—enough said—every quote was golden.”

Like Cutler, honesty and openness are also commendable traits in Vaught’s book.

Derek Anderson was never afraid to be blunt and honest,” Vaught emphasized. “And Derrick Miller always called me Mr. Vaught, and even in tough times was always very honest and willing to talk with me. Roger Harden could always analyze a game and never made excuses.”

For both Cutler and Vaught, just being friendly, gregarious, and affable were slam-dunk qualities that often made a big difference. For Cutler, players like Reggie Hanson and Sean Woods were the life of the party. Reggie’s “million-dollar smile” and Sean’s playful sense of humor made for many hilarious soundbites and memorable stand-ups.

For Vaught, an engaging Rick Robey (like after the scolding he gave Jim Master when he showed up late for Robey’s summer camp at Centre College) or a charming Richie Farmer with his eastern Kentucky twang were always good for a story AND A LAUGH.

To be honest, both Alan and Larry admitted that this list could go on and on—and that inevitably, there would be many others that would rightfully deserve to be included. They’re both correct in that because in this world of media interviews, relationships are ultimately what matters. Develop a good relationship with any player, and you’ll eventually get a story worth reporting.

Unfortunately, good relationships take time. It’s next to impossible—in this one-and-done era—to get to know someone in the few short months they’re on campus. Throw in the limited access imposed by the pandemic and the UK Athletics powers that be, and it’s no wonder that everyone starts reporting on the exact same drivel.

I’m not giving up, though. Somewhere out there, there’s an Antoine Walker, a Ramel Bradley, or a Lukasz Obrzut just waiting to break the internet. Like Jack “Goose” Givens or Kenny “Sky” Walker, it’s just a matter of them sticking around long enough for us to get to know them better…or for legendary journalistic pros like Alan Cutler or Larry Vaught to finally coax it out of them.

Who’s your vote for the most interesting UK Basketball player in the world?

It’s Time To Dress It Up

It’s Time To Dress It Up

If the suit makes the man, then Coach John Calipari hasn’t been much of a man this year.

I’ll readily admit that I’m no fashionista. Although my hat game was strong during the ponytail era, I’ve never ever owned Armani suits or donned Gucci shoes. I do believe, however, in dressing for success.

That’s why, as an orthodontist, I usually attended patient consultations in a coat and tie. And why, in the early years of my new media gig covering sporting events, I frequently showed up in a three-piece suit. I wanted to represent my practice—and subsequently the media outlets for whom I wrote—in the most professional light possible in front of my patients, peers, and business clients.

I realize that coaching basketball games is different from working in a clinic, bank, or on Wall Street—but the optics of representing your company, your organization, or your university in a professional manner remain exactly the same. How you look matters. If you appear at company sponsored events unkempt and sloppily dressed, that’s a poor reflection of the people you represent.

You’ve undoubtedly noticed that for the past few games, Coach John Calipari has been casually attired in a sport coat while ranting on the sidelines. Mind you, this was an actual upgrade from the track suit he wore during much of the preconference slate. To the chagrin of many in BBN, both blazer and windbreaker are no substitute for the regal pin-striped suit and tie we were all accustomed to seeing in years past.

I’m not saying the team struggles this year are directly related to the missing suit and tie on the sidelines, but as long as we’re all piling on, I thought I’d add fuel to the file.

Granted, Calipari is just a basketball coach, but he’s also the most famous face associated with the University of Kentucky. Just as you wouldn’t expect the leader of the free world to conduct business in sweats and tennis shoes, you shouldn’t expect the coach in charge of the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball to be sloppily attired either—especially since his image is so prominently displayed across countless media platforms.

I’ve always perceived Coach Cal to be more image conscious than he lets on. Frankly, I was surprised he chucked his customary and formal game-time threads. Was it just a matter of a Covid-19 blip, or had he finally abandoned style for comfort in his old age? How does he feel coaches should be dressed on the sidelines?

“I would tell you whatever makes them comfortable,” he answered when I asked him directly. “No, I won’t do any suit and tie. But I needed to feel like I was coaching again. And I was kind of feeling like this was all pick-up basketball. I wanted to feel like I was coaching. That’s why I did it. I didn’t do it for any other reason. But I would tell any coach, ‘whatever makes you comfortable.’ Coaches dress different. If they’re comfortable in a sweat suit or a t-shirt or a pullover shirt, be comfortable. I’m just more comfortable with a sport coat and a pair of jeans—which is what I’ve been wearing.”

For all I care, Calipari can wear a bathrobe and bunny slippers during his time away from the university. But when he’s on company time—i.e. coaching during games—he needs to be attired professionally. I’d prefer the sartorial splendor of a Jay Wright or Jerry Stackhouse every single night, but I guess I can live with the sport coat and slacks. Just please don’t regress to Huggy Bear sweats or Mike Brey shorts.

On the Women’s Basketball side, I have no complaints. Former head coach Matthew Mitchell was certainly GQ worthy while strolling the sidelines. Current head coach Kyra Elzy continues the tradition by knocking it out of the park. Just like Coach Cal, however, when it comes down to what to wear during games, the first-year head coach feels as if it’s to each their own.

“As far as how people are dressed, it’s up to each individual,” Elzy explained. “To coach good, you want to feel good. You just wear what you’re comfortable with…I’m not dressing any different than I normally dress. Thank you for everybody watching.”

And therein lies the key. Remember, everybody’s watching. You’re a professional, a mentor to future generations, and a representative of the state university. Act like one. Be like one. Look like one. It matters more than you think.

Why I Do Stupid Things

Why I Do Stupid Things

I just returned from a grueling road trip to Columbia, Missouri. It’s the home of the University of Missouri Tigers, and my Kentucky Wildcats were matched up with them on Saturday afternoon at the midpoint of this year’s 10-game SEC gauntlet of a schedule. For the record, Kentucky laid an egg and got pummeled—but that’s not the point of this post. Or maybe it is?

The question I’ve been asked time and time again is why would a guy like me continuously invest the time and energy to follow a football team that is known for ripping your heart out year after year in the most perplexing manner possible?

Let me try to explain because I think that’s a fair question.

You see, it’s a 14-hour round trip to Columbia. The drive through the flatlands of the Midwest is ridiculously boring. The traffic around St. Louis can be stifling and the weather this time of the year is already cold and dreary. Missouri isn’t a big foodie destination either. I’m not a big fan of those cracker-crust pizzas, and the steamed dumplings in Columbia weren’t worth the bamboo chopsticks my carryout order came with. Wouldn’t my weekends be better spent working towards world peace or finding the cure for cancer?

To add to my misery, I made the trip alone. A good buddy and colleague bailed out at the last possible minute. I get that—things come up. Plus, don’t forget there’s still a pandemic going on, gas and hotels still cost money, and media outlets are more selective than ever now in who goes where.

Speaking of which, I was the only UK media person—outside of the normal UK staff and broadcasting network—to cover the game. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. It’s a whole different media world out there than it was just a few short years ago. No Herald-Leader, no Courier-Journal, no Cats Pause, no local TV stations—no nothing.

Only me. Wouldn’t it have been better to drown my sorrows from the comfort of my basement couch? Was I nuts for going?

I don’t think so…and here’s why.

It’s simple. I’m a fan. I’m no different than most of you. For die-hard Kentucky fans, it’s always about the journey rather than the destination. Sure I want Kentucky to win just as much as the next guy (probably more), but after a half century of heartbreak, I’ve finally realized that it’s not the won-loss record that ultimately tickles my fancy.

Nope, it’s the realization that—as a sports fan—regardless of the misery I may be currently experiencing, that tantalizing jolt of euphoria could be just around the corner. That game winning kick, that season-saving interception, or that once-in-a-lifetime comeback victory could be just a road trip away. AND I DON’T WANT TO MISS IT!

So I go—to out of the way places like Columbia the week before Halloween, through the backwoods of Mississippi to hamlets like Starkville, and Auburn, and Fayetteville—all because I want to witness with my own eyes the next great iconic moment in Kentucky Football history.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not equating momentous football victories with the moon landing. However, we all know that—as fans—there are certain moments that will always be a part of our hearts forever. Following the Cats to the end of the earth is part of our DNA. It’s an integral part of who we are, a perfunctory rite of passage, our unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness within our Big Blue Nation.

Because despite our travails, every once in a blue moon, we stumble upon those magical moments of heaven on earth. Like in Gainesville two years ago when Kentucky broke that 31-game losing streak against the Gators. Or like in Knoxville the weekend before last when the Cats dismantled Rocky Top and ended that ignominious 36-year losing streak.

So I’ll pack my bags, download some podcasts, and hunker down for some monotonous travel, greasy fast food, overpriced hotels, and bad football.

I know there’ll be plenty more duds like Missouri lurking in the future. But hidden among them will be those memorable gems you simply can’t miss. It’s the price you have to pay.

Trust me—it’s absolutely worth it.

The Very First Time

The Very First Time

Everyone remembers the first time you tried something, right? The first time you drove a car … the first time you fell in love … the first time you bit into a cheeseburger. How about the first time you wrote a book?

I’ve always loved to write. My dream was to write books for a living. In my previous life as an orthodontist, I never had the time. Plus, even if I did, no one wants to read about teeth.

Now in retirement, I have all the free time in the world to write about anything I want. And for my very first book project, I found the perfect subject to ensnare.

Every Kentucky Wildcat fan knows Alan Cutler. The guy was a staple over the central Kentucky sports airwaves for over four decades. During that time, as the flamboyant reporter and sports anchor of LEX18, Alan covered three UK NCAA national championships in basketball and a lot of really bad UK Football teams. Through it all, he’s still best known for chasing UK Basketball coach Billy Gillispie down the hallway on the day he was fired.

Of course, in CUT TO THE CHASE! (that title alone should win us a Pulitzer—thank you Judy Cutler), we talk all about “the chase,” but there’s A LOT more to the story than just the chase. In fact, there’s A LOT more to the entire book. Whether you’re a die-hard sports junkie, a casual UK fan, or just a citizen of the Commonwealth looking for a fantastically entertaining read, we promise you’ll enjoy this labor of love.

Enough of the preliminaries. Lets Cut To The Chase! Here are the top ten reasons to buy the book.

10. Find out what really happened on the Billy Gillispie chase. You’ll be dumbfounded when you discover the story behind the story. You gotta be kidding me.

9. Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari wrote the foreword for the book. Did you know he and Cutler first met when Calipari was an assistant coach and Cutler was working the Pittsburgh beat? Yep, there’s an interesting history between them, and Coach Cal delivers a knockout punch right out of the gate.

8. You can’t fake experience with a book like this. Alan served over three decades on the UK beat. Nearly everyone I talked to described him as “honest and tough—but fair.” Tell me what other UK sportscaster you would rather hear from. Go ahead … I’m waiting.

7. At an introductory promotional price of $19.99 ($9.99 on Kindle), it’s the bargain of the year. This isn’t some fly-by-night tabloid feature thrown together over the course of a couple of days. No—this was a passionate project from the heart, painstakingly crafted over two-and-a-half years of agonizing soul searching and research. It’s 480 glorious pages and 129 chapters (yes, you heard that right) of blood, sweat, and tears. During times of a Covid shutdown, you couldn’t ask for better in-home entertainment.

6. Facts are NOT optional. In fact, Alan drove me nuts with his incessant attention to detail. His investigative reporter work ethic made sure we fact checked every single minute detail about people, places, and conversations that occurred decades ago. For those wanting a trip down memory lane, the names, dates, times, scores, and statistics we’ve included will definitely bring the stories to life. Alan was right—the devil was in the details.

5. Alan is a great storyteller. You can’t get this type of narrative anywhere else. The guy’s loud, opinionated, arrogant, bold, and controversial—definitely NOT boring. In chapter after chapter, Alan takes you behind the scenes and leads you by hand through some of his favorite personal encounters. He gives you his take on everything from UK Football’s state of the union, to race relations, to his candid thoughts about Rick Pitino. I had no idea about the extent of their love-hate relationship. Alan’s recounting of his “fight” with Pitino outside of Memorial Coliseum is worth the price of admission. As crazy as every one of his stories appears to be, Alan claims that every single word in them is true.

4. The book sounds like Alan. Hall of Fame sportswriter Dick “Hoops” Weiss told both Alan and me that the one sure way for this book to fail was if it didn’t reflect Alan’s voice. After all, no one wants to listen to me. In order to ensure that we stayed true to everything that made Cutler so popular, we worked extra hard to make sure we captured all his mannerisms, cadences, and favorite phrases. Before even typing a word, I spent hours and hours sitting with Alan at his breakfast table just listening to him talk. The result? I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how his speaking style and dominant personality jumps off the written page.

3. The book is about more than just sports. It drills down deep into the personalities behind the athletes. You’ll still get all the often-repeated, on-the-field memories found in other UK sports books, but Alan takes you to a whole different level. King Rex crying, Sam Bowie shooting air balls, why Bill Curry flopped, Dick Enberg’s socks—every single chapter packed full of emotion, humor, and never-before-told tales from Alan’s personal perspective. 

2. Did I mention the book is about more than just sports? It’s about life—and how a self-proclaimed, big-mouth, hot shot New Yorker came to love his Old Kentucky Home. Spoiler alert: There’s even a personal love story hidden in there somewhere if you can believe it.

AND THE NUMBER ONE REASON TO BUY THE BOOK…

1. It’s my first book.

Check it out at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08GTJ2DSC

If you really do enjoy the book, please take the time also to write a kind review and share it with your friends. Thanks so much. It means a lot to both Alan and me.

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

Kentucky’s Immanuel Quickley just did something that has never been done. The Wildcats’ sophomore guard just won his second straight SEC Player of the Week award. Immanuel’s numbers on the court this season have been supremely impressive. But it’s his faith-based leadership among his teammates that will have far more eternal significance. Here’s a sneak preview of my upcoming column appearing in the Nolan Media Group newspapers later this week.

 

Immanuel Quickley prepares faith-driven Wildcat team for postseason success

By Dr. John Huang

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – When asked what he likes about this year’s team, Coach John Calipari was quick to point out his talented backcourt trio. “I like that we’re playing three point guards,” said Kentucky’s hall of fame coach.

Although Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, and Tyrese Maxey may eventually lead Calipari’s team to another coveted national championship, there’s another trio of Wildcats who will ultimately guide them into the sacred Promised Land.

When it comes to spirituality on Kentucky Wildcat basketball teams, I don’t recall a more outwardly vocal trinity than Immanuel Quickley, Nate Sestina, and Keion Brooks. The three are part of eight scholarship players this year who are rapidly capturing the hearts of BBN.

We’re all familiar with Quickley’s story. The sophomore guard from Havre De Grace, Maryland has stated on numerous occasions how important his faith has been to him. A devout upbringing, an active church life, and studying God’s Word have been the hallmarks of his early life of piety.

“I started putting God first,” Immanuel—which means ‘God with us’—told us at a recent media session.

That means getting up early and starting off each day with a daily devotional. Having glided through the Psalms, the Gospel of Luke, and now on to the Book of Isaiah, the Wildcats’ most consistent player appears poised to finish out this season with some pretty God-sized biblical accomplishments.

“Honestly, I know why I read the Bible,” he explained. “I think just starting from the beginning and trying to read it to the end like it’s a regular book—it gives me something to look forward to. Instead of just reading random stuff, I keep building and having something to go back to.”

Immanuel’s dedication to God’s Word has not been lost on Nate Sestina, his traveling roommate on road trips. The two have developed a special bond, occasionally even delving into some deep spiritual discussions. Taking after Immanuel’s lead, the graduate transfer from Bucknell has faithfully relied on Scripture in his attempt to bolster confidence in himself.

“I follow this Bible verse very closely,” Nate shared with me after a recent practice session. “It’s Proverbs 16:3—’Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he shall establish your plans.’ I’ve actually talked to Immanuel about it. So, he likes it a lot too. But, just believing that whatever I do, that God’s got me.”

Keion Brooks is another Wildcat who’s not afraid to talk openly about his Christian faith.

“It’s extremely important to me,” the 6’7 freshman from Ft. Wayne, Indiana has admitted on several occasions. “It’s a big part of who I am.”

Brooks, when speaking to reporters, often appears reticent and shy. But he was bold and confident when talking about the gratitude and contentment stemming directly from his biblical beliefs.

“God has blessed me with being able to be here to wake up every day,” he said with an unmistakable look of serenity. “Being able to be a part of this great program. Being able to meet so many great people throughout this world. Just blessing me with the talent to play basketball. Basketball has taken me all over the place, all over the country. I just want to pay my dues back to Him because He’s just put me in a great place with a great family and support system to do some phenomenal things. So I just got to make sure I do my part to play hard and continue to believe in Him.”

When John Calipari tells us over and over that these are good kids, it’s not just coach speak. From what I’ve gleaned, this year’s crew consists of a bunch of really GREAT kids—kids that know their roles, kids that are fully aware of their exalted status as Kentucky Basketball players, and kids who will hopefully bring the Wildcats another national championship.

As Immanuel Quickley is learning in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little child shall lead them.”

I’m not sure whether God is necessarily a University of Kentucky Basketball fan or not. But it sure can’t hurt that Immanuel Quickley–whose Twitter handle just happens to be @IQ_GodSon–obviously has his priorities in the right place. Whether on the basketball court or in the arena of eternal life, you can be certain that @IQ_GodSon is getting everyone ready for the day of reckoning.

I’m ready. Are you?

Dr. John Huang is a regular columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs

 

The Most Beloved Coach in America

The Most Beloved Coach in America

Just mention the name Joe B. Hall, and everybody in Big Blue Nation goes gaga. After all, we’re talking about the basketball coach who followed in the footsteps of the legendary Adolph Rupp by leading Kentucky to their 5th National Championship in 1978. This is the same guy who won 297 games in his thirteen years at the Wildcat helm, and after retirement, became arguably the greatest ambassador for the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball.

So imagine how excited I was to be able to read Coach Joe B. Hall’s brand-new book, “Coach Hall: My Life On and Off the Court.” Joe B. claims it’s not a basketball book, but I’ll have to disagree. Because to those of us who love UK sports, anything associated with our cherished Coach Hall is ultimately related to basketball.

Don’t anybody worry. I’m not going to spoil it for you. But here’s my take for those who want to know if the book is really any good.

Oh, it’s good all right—much better than I thought it would be. Granted, the suspense lags a bit as Joe shares stories about his youth, but it really ratchets up when basketball enters the picture. As Adolph Rupp steps on to the stage, the narrative suddenly goes ballistic.

I won’t say that Joe throws Coach Rupp under the bus. No—far from it. He maintains the same level of respect and deference for his mentor that we’ve always known him to have. But make no mistake about it, Joe goes out of his way to set the record straight on how Coach Rupp did everything in his power to avoid losing his job—including sabotaging Joe’s desire to follow in his footsteps. In Joe’s own low-key approach, he pokes fun at Coach Rupp in ways that made me laugh out loud. I thought I was fairly knowledgeable on what went on behind the scenes—but what Joe ultimately reveals will make you do several double takes.

The book’s an easy read. I finished it in one sitting in just a couple of hours, so don’t expect a whole lot of deep character development. In fact, most of the star players get just a quick mention, and there are only a few chapters devoted to some of the more memorable games. Not surprisingly, Bobby Knight comes across as the jerk that he is. And bring out the Kleenexes for his farewell to Katharine.

Overall, Marianne Walker does an excellent job of making the book readable, entertaining, and most importantly—an accurate portrayal of arguably the most beloved coach in the history of UK Basketball. If I had one major criticism, it’s that the book needed to be longer. It glossed over issues I thought needed closure. From that perspective, it didn’t do justice to the legacy Joe deserves.

Joe B’s popularity has skyrocketed since he stepped down as head coach after the 1984-85 season. Those of you familiar with the program back in the 80s surely remember when this grandfatherly figure from Cynthiana wasn’t loved by everyone. Believe it or not, a lot people wanted him fired.

Since confession is good for the soul, permit me to clear my conscience. I was one of those people who wanted Joe ousted after Kentucky lost to Middle Tennessee State University in the first round of the Mideast Regional of the 1982 NCAA Tournament. Are you kidding me? How can a team with all-stars such as Dirk Minniefield, Jim Master, Charles Hurt, Derrick Hord, Melvin Turpin, and Dicky Beal lose to an opponent with the likes of Ed “Pancakes” Perry and Lucious “Buck” Hailey?

“Joe can’t coach his way out of a wet paper bag,” I remembered saying to my dental school classmates. “Joe must go,” we all chanted. “Hall must fall,” the people screamed.

All these memories came flooding back to me a couple of months ago when I was invited, by Kentucky sports guru Oscar Combs, to former UK player Larry Stamper’s 70th birthday celebration. Of course, Coach Hall was also invited. The legend himself made the trip all the way from Louisville, and fortuitously (for me), ended up sitting immediately to my left.

Here was someone who was larger than life, who I had literally worshipped back in ’78 when the Cats won that first title of my lifetime. (Never mind, just five years later, I wanted him tarred and feathered—but that’s neither here nor there.) The point being now—nearly four decades later—I’m literally breaking bread with the basketball icon of my youth. You talk about living a dream!

We talked about that ’82 team…and when the moment was right, I admitted to him that I wanted him fired after the loss.

“So did a lot of other people,” Joe answered with a wry smile. “Welcome to the club.”

I think that’s exactly why Coach Joe B. Hall is the most beloved coach in America. Despite his exalted status, the guy remains forever approachable. If you ever saw him shopping in Sam’s Club, you felt like you could go up to him and talk hoops anytime. Don’t get me wrong—Coach Hall was serious about his coaching responsibilities, but he never took himself too seriously. As such, he never really got the credit that he deserved.

As the successor to Coach Rupp, Joe B. Hall was “the keeper of the flame.” He knew the importance Kentucky Basketball played in the lives of the people of the Commonwealth, and he guarded that knowledge with every ounce of his being. He knew how vital it was to keep not only the winning tradition, but the passion alive.

During his coaching tenure, Joe B. took a boatload of All-American primadonnas and not only made them winners on the basketball court but also instilled in them the discipline necessary to be productive young men. In other words, Coach Hall—through the players he coached—reflected (and continues to reflect) the glory that is Kentucky Basketball back to the rest of world. He made us all proud to be citizens of BBN.

As the party celebration wound down, I relished my time in the presence of Wildcat royalty. I sat enthralled—between bites of Larry Stamper’s delectable homemade banana pudding— listening to Larry and fellow teammate Jim Andrews reminisce about their playing days. I learned that Kevin Grevey and Jimmy Dan Conner were two of the messiest teammates around. I also learned about a harrowing plane ride down to Louisiana and the subsequent reason why Larry had a clunker of game against LSU.

All the while, Joe B. listened patiently, sat serenely, and just smiled—like a proud father watching over his precocious kids, basking in his own memories as the patriarch of the greatest blue-blooded family in the history of the game.

Godspeed Joe! Thank you so much for being exactly who you are. Here’s another big hug on behalf of a loving and grateful Big Blue Nation.

 

Welcoming Billy Gillispie

Welcoming Billy Gillispie

The other night, my friend and colleague, Keith Taylor, and I were talking about Bobby Knight. The guy goes by “Bob” now, but those of us old enough to remember the volatile chair-throwing, Joe B. Hall-back-of-the-head-slapping, Neil-Reed-choking, Puerto-Rico-policeman punching, IU-student-shaming, former Hoosier Basketball head coach, will always think of him as “Bobby.”

Indiana University, after a long and bitter estrangement, welcomed Knight back to Assembly Hall last week after giving him the pink slip nearly twenty years earlier. After a highly exalted thirty-year coaching career and guiding the red menace to three NCAA titles, it seemed to me like the proper thing to do. Forgive and forget, kiss and make up, and let bygones be bygones. Life is way too short to hold on to such vindictive grudges.

Keith then went on to write about Kentucky following Indiana’s lead and honoring its own bevy of former coaches. If the Hoosiers were willing to bury the hatchet and reconcile with Knight, then surely the Wildcats could do the same with Eddie Sutton, Rick Pitino, and Tubby Smith.

I second Keith’s motion. In fact, I’ll go a step further. In addition to Sutton, Pitino, and Smith, let’s also honor Billy Gillispie while we’re at it. After all, he’s still a very real part of our Wildcat history and tradition—part of the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. And history—whether good or bad—should be remembered, right?

Come to think of it, let’s honor them all. Line everybody who’s ever coached at Kentucky up at midcourt on a special “celebration of former coaches” night, and let’s shower them all with the recognition they deserve.

Granted, having Adolph Rupp back would be a bit awkward since he’s dead (as are the previous fifteen UK coaches who went before him). But it’s obvious the Baron of the Bluegrass is still quite revered among loyal Kentucky fans. Over forty years later, the arena the Wildcats play in still bears his name. It’s got a bank attached to it now, but I think the man who won 876 games and four NCAA Championships wouldn’t feel the least bit slighted. As tight as he was with his money, he probably would have embraced it—BY GAWD!

Nothing brings more joy to my soul than the sight of Joe B. Hall cheering on the Cats from his trademark seat a couple of rows off the floor at Rupp Arena (at Central Bank Center). At 91 years of age now, it’s getting harder and harder for him to make the trip in. Being the man who follows a legend is the most difficult job in sports. Joe B. did that with grace and class. Getting a well-deserved thunderous ovation when he’s introduced—for perhaps one of the final times—is something fans should readily savor.

Tubby Smith had a nice ten-year run in Lexington. Winning 263 games, one national title, and being inducted into the UK Athletic Hall of Fame is nothing to scoff at. Although he played Saul a little too much, and Tubby himself got a tad lazy on the recruiting trail in his later years, it’s still easy for fans to welcome him back with open arms, warm hugs, and blue kisses.

Here’s where it starts getting a little difficult.

Eddie Sutton once said he would crawl all the way to Lexington to take the Kentucky job. Four short years later, he was leaving town in disgrace with 88 wins and a scandalous program trailing in his wake. That mysterious Emory Freight package remains a mystery to this day. It was said back then that Kentuckians liked their hair and bourbon the same way—straight. Sutton had too little of the former and too much of the latter. He was a brilliant coach with an all-too-common flaw. It’s time for BBN to give him a mulligan and show him some love before it’s too late.

Talk about fatal flaws, how about Rick Pitino? He’s built his legacy on lies, sex, and strippers in the dorm rooms. But look at it this way—the guy did bring Kentucky Basketball back from the dead. In eight years as head coach, he got Kentucky 219 wins and another national title—two if you count the one Tubby won with his players. Unfortunately, he jilted BBN—first for the glory and riches of the NBA, and then again for the unforgivable slap-in-the-face gig with little brother down the road. It’s hard to forgive Benedict Arnold, but you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for his recent embarrassing fall from grace. What he did for Kentucky, however, deserves our genuine gratitude. I’m betting Kentucky fans will cheer rather than jeer when his name is finally called.

That brings us to Billy Gillispie. In only two short years, Billy Clyde took Kentucky from the penthouse to the outhouse. Embarrassing home losses to Gardner Webb and VMI notwithstanding, it was his inability to handle the day-to-day rigors of running the Roman Empire that eventually got him fired. He won 40 games in his abbreviated tenure, but the awkward interviews, player abuse allegations, and rumors of hot tub escapades just couldn’t be ignored.

As bizarre as all that sounds, you can’t pin all the blame on Billy. Without the proper training and support, he was put in a position where he was bound to fail. Since he left Kentucky, the poor guy has also struggled mightily with the bottle and battled some very serious health complications as well. A bad hire from the get-go, we owe Gillispie at least a tiny dose of sympathy if not a generous serving of compassion.

Despite the fact that Gillispie sued UK for $6 million in an attempt to recoup his lost salary, I say it’s time to turn the other cheek. In fact, someone far greater than me once said, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”

The University of Kentucky is the winningest college basketball program of all time. All of the aforementioned coaches have contributed to that win total. Like them or not, they’re all part of the grand legacy that is Kentucky Basketball. As loyal fans of the program, it’s time for all of us to take the high road, hand over our checkerboard coats, and welcome every one of those coaches back into our good graces.

If Indiana can welcome back Bobby Knight, Kentucky should go the extra mile and welcome back Billy Gillispie.