This will not be a merry Christmas for many of us who live in Kentucky. Maybe native daughter Loretta Lynn should do a song about it. The reformers are making life miserable for our tobacco and whiskey industries. The thoroughbred market is so depressed that there are FOR SALE signs on horse farms all over the bluegrass. And then there's this ugly mess over University of Kentucky basketball that seems to have everybody in the nation pointing a finger at us.
This latest scandal began in March, when $1,000 was allegedly found in an airfreight package on its way from a Kentucky assistant coach to the father of a recruit in Los Angeles, and it has so mushroomed that you expect to hear any day now that Ollie North was somehow involved. Columnists and commentators from coast to coast are having a field day, and rival schools are gleeful over the Wildcats' comeuppance.
Understand, we Kentuckians are used to being the butt of jokes. Outsiders don't believe that every town in Kentucky isn't like Dogpatch. But even the hillbilly jokes aren't as hard to take as the basketball jokes. Kentuckians didn't invent cheatin', lyin' and hurtin'. We just like to hear about them on the jukebox sometimes. But believe it or not, there are a lot of us who feel embarrassed by the scandal and long for a day when the Wildcats can compete with the nation's best within NCAA rules.
However, I'm not convinced it will ever be much different in Lexington, where the fat cats have never been able to keep, their paws off the basketball players. Kentucky wasn't even allowed to play other NCAA teams in the 1952-53 season because of the involvement of some of its players in shaving points. At that time a New York judge named Saul Streit issued a blistering indictment of the Wildcat basketball program and the surrounding atmosphere that, sadly, is as valid today as it was then. Fans, coaches and players come and go, but the mentality remains the same.
December 19, 1988
What makes Lexington different from other college towns its size is that it's more worldly. I know that seems at odds with Kentucky's boondocks image, but it's true. Lexington is the horse-breeding capital of the world, a racy town in more ways than one. Basketball players are fawned over by rich breeders and invited to parties where they can hobnob with oil sheikhs and movie stars. The Wildcats are the only game in town, which means that a pimply-faced freshman who can hit the medium-range jump shot will be treated as if he were Magic Johnson.
So, yes, we Kentuckians are guilty of caring so much about basketball that it's almost obscene. But you also have to remember that, educationally and economically, Kentucky always has been one of the nation's poorest states. Unlike Indiana and North Carolina and other states where college basketball has flourished, we don't have much else to brag about. As a result, our value system is decidedly out of whack.
A few years ago, Otis Singletary, the University of Kentucky's president at the time and a man I like very much, cornered me at a party to berate me about something I had written about the Wildcats' coach then, Joe B. Hall. Finally I interrupted and said, "Doc, you're the president of the major university in a state that ranks near the bottom in education. Don't you have something more important to worry about than this?" In retrospect, I don't think he did.
The Kentuckians for whom I feel the worst are Loretta Lynn's folks—the coal miners and the tobacco farmers and the small-town citizens who probably couldn't afford Wildcat season tickets even if they could get them. They're the lifeblood of Kentucky basketball, the hard-core fans whose hard, bleak winters have been made bearable over the years by the Wildcats' success. From Pikeville to Paducah, they hunker down by their radios to hear the revered Cawood Led ford call the games. Even when a game is on TV, it's de rigueur for Kentuckians to turn down the sound and turn up Cawood.
These are the people whose loyalty and trust have been most betrayed. It brings them great pain to see their beloved Wildcats being ridiculed. Yet in a poll conducted by The Cats' Pause, an independent publication devoted to Kentucky athletics, the majority of the respondents, most of whom could be characterized as Big Blue diehards, said they wanted to see Wildcats coach Eddie Sutton and his staff fired if the charges against them are proved.
If Sutton doesn't survive, I have a solution I'll present to my fellow Kentuckians as a Christmas gift. The only way the Wildcats can get back on track is to find a coach who's strong enough to run the program instead of letting the program run him. Such a man works only about 175 miles from Lexington. But, geez, wouldn't Bob Knight look sort of funny in a blue sweater?