This is the first article in a weekly series of 4. Each article will highlight 25 of the most influential people in the history of the University of Kentucky athletic program, counting down from 100 to 1. What makes a person “influential”? We used a variety of criteria, including: individual accomplishments, team accomplishments, impact to their particular sport, impact to the overall athletics program, cultural importance, and fan popularity. You may disagree with some of our selections, and that’s OK. Our goal is to not only provide recognition to some of the most important names of the past, but to also create discussion amongst the Big Blue Nation. The greatest fanbase in all of sports.
#100: Jesse Witten (Men’s Tennis)
The 2002 SEC Freshman of the Year and 2005 SEC Player of the Year was the model of consistency during his time hitting massive forehands in Lexington. Witten made an immediate impact his freshman year by making it to the NCAA Championship final. His pro career was highlighted in 2009 when he not only qualified for the US Open, but won his first two matches before losing to all-time great Novak Djokovic in the 3rd round (a match in which Witten actually won the first set).
#99: Marlana VanHoose (Other)
Nobody can bring tears to the eyes of 20,000 people quite like Marlana VanHoose. Doctors told her parents that Marlana might not make it past her first birthday after being born with Cytomegalovirus (CMV), a disease which left her blinded for life. But God had other plans for this young lady. She has sung the national anthem at NASCAR races, the NBA playoffs, and even performed at the 2016 Republican National Convention. But it was her performance at a UK women’s basketball game in 2012 that gave Marlana the spark she needed, as video of beautiful rendition quickly went viral and made her a star. Big Blue Nation has since learned to always get to their seat early if Marlana is scheduled to sing.
#98: James Johnson (Wrestling)
He is the only Kentucky wrestler to have his name listed in the University of Kentucky athletics Hall of Fame. The man was sculpted like a Greek god, as evidenced by the fact that his closest friends referred to him as “Zeus.” But when Johnson passed away in 2019, he was remembered more for his friendly smile than muscular physique. After finishing his final season at UK with a second-place finish at the 1980 SEC Championships, Johnson went on to have a great professional career, and was named USA Wrestling’s Athlete of the Year in 1993.
#97: Nancy Napolski Johnson (Rifle)
To standout in UK’s massively successful rifle program, you have to be pretty good. And Nancy was gold-medal good. She won the gold for the US in the women’s 10-meter air rifle at the 2000 Summer Olympics. During her time in Lexington, she shot down the competition to win the individual national championship in air rifle in 1994 and was a three-time All-American.
#96: Worldwide Wes (Other)
His name is William Sydney Wesley, you may know him as Worldwide Wes. With all due respect to Austin Powers, I don’t know if there has ever been more of an international man of mystery than Mr. Wesley. Many people think John Calipari’s relationship with Worldwide Wes was shady, and his presence near the front row of games at Rupp Arena in Cal’s early years made some feel uneasy. For better or worse, Wes’s mystique was a part of what put Kentucky back on the center stage of college basketball. And he also helped with landing one of the most important pieces from the 2012 national championship team, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
#95: Sarah Witten (Women’s Tennis)
With all due respect to Andrew and Aaron Harrison, the best sibling duo in Kentucky sports may have been on a different kind of court. Sarah Witten was the sister of UK tennis great, Jesse Witten (#100 on our list). Sarah made history by becoming the only women’s tennis player at UK to be named to three straight All-America teams. She ended her senior year by making a run to the finals of the NCAA doubles tournament.
#94: Vince Marrow (Football)
If you are an outsider reading this list, you are probably wondering why on earth an Associate Head Coach and Tight Ends coach would make a list of most influential people around UK athletics. But those of us inside the BBN, know that Marrow’s title doesn’t do justice to his importance in the rise of the football program. He excels at scouting and building relationships with players at a young age, which allows Kentucky to compete for a caliber of player that just wasn’t possible in previous coaching regimes. Mitch Barnhart also agreed, as he just gave Vince a contract extension that pays him over $1 million/year. The Big Dog will be able to buy a lot of Fritos with that.
#93: Alan Cutler (Media)
For nearly 40 years, Alan Cutler brought his one of a kind personality to make the sports segment of an LEX-18 news broadcast must see TV. But Cutler also worked just as hard off the air and was credited for breaking many stories in UK Athletics over the years. Viewers watched in pure shock, as Alan Cutler followed former basketball coach Billy Gillispie through the hallways of the Joe Craft Center after it was announced that he had been fired. When Billy started to jog in hopes of getting away from Mr. Cutler, Alan told the departed coach, “I can run all day, Billy!” Which I think is an understatement because Alan Cutler never once stopped running in all his years covering UK sports.
#92: Rich Brooks (Football)
If Heaven were located in Eugene, Oregon or Lexington, Kentucky, Rich Brooks would have a special place there. The man helped build Oregon into the national power that it is today, and came to Kentucky in 2003 to help rebuild a program that was in absolute shambles from NCAA sanctions. Brooks’ first three seasons in Lexington were anything but heavenly, however, as he posted a 9-25 record and had many fans wondering if it was time to move on. He then responded with an 8-5 season and a Music City Bowl victory in 2006, which was followed in 2007 with memorable wins over #9 Louisville and #1 LSU (the eventual national champion) at Commonwealth Stadium. This was only the 3rd time in the history of Kentucky football that the Cats defeated a team ranked number one in the country.
#91: Claude Sullivan (Media)
Claude was a native Kentuckian, born in Winchester. He did the play-by-play broadcasts for UK football and basketball games for nearly 20 years before he passed away from throat cancer at the young age of 42. In addition to UK games, Claude had the opportunity to broadcast Cincinnati Reds baseball games the final 3 years of his life. He was named Kentucky Sportscaster of the Year for 8 straight years from 1959 to 1966.
#90: DeMarcus Cousins (Men’s Basketball)
“Hello Mr. President, this DeMarcus Cousins.” One of the absolute best phrases in the history of Kentucky basketball, was uttered when “Boogie” got to speak to President Barack Obama on the phone after the UK men’s basketball team had raised $1 million for victims of the Haitian earthquake. Even though Cousins was only on campus for one season, he became one of the biggest fan favorites to ever set foot on campus. We saw the lovable, child-like demeanor he carried with him off the floor, and the don’t mess with me attitude on the floor that made him draw the ire of every opposing teams fanbase.
#89: Josh Allen (Football)
Josh Allen’s final college choices to play college football were Kentucky, Buffalo, and Monmouth. To say he was not a top star recruit is an understatement, so I’m sure many people were shocked when Allen finished his 2018 senior season with some of the best numbers in the history of SEC football: led the SEC in quarterback sacks (17), tackles for loss (21.5), and forced fumbles (5); ranked second nationally in sacks; Consensus First-Team All-American; SEC Defensive Player of the Year; and winner of the Nagurski, Bednarik, Lott, and Lambert Awards. All of this while helping lead Kentucky to its best regular-season record in 41 years (10-3) and a thrilling victory over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl.
#88: Taryn Ignacio Patrick (Swimming & Diving)
In 2006, Patrick became the first Wildcat swimmer to ever win a National Championship, which she earned in the platform event at the NCAA Championships. And not only did she win, she broke the NCAA record as she scored 335.20 in the finals. She was a five-time All-American and was honored as the SEC Diver of the Year in every season she was at Kentucky.
#87: Pat Riley (Basketball)
Pat Riley was one of the 10 greatest coaches in the NBA history. Not only did he win 5 championships as a head coach, but is the only person to win a title as a player, assistant coach, head coach, and an executive. He is one of the few people on this list who actually had more success and was known more outside of Kentucky. That’s not to say Riley didn’t have one heck of a career in Lexington, too. He was named SEC Player of the Year and helped lead Kentucky to the national championship game in 1966, where they lost the infamous game against Texas Western. His popularity was just recently reignited as actor Adrien Brody portrayed Riley on the popular HBO drama: “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.”
#86: Ilkka Jantti (Men’s Soccer)
Jantti made his way to the Bluegrass from Finland, where he completed many firsts: first Finnish player at UK, first All-American in men’s soccer history; and first-team NSCAA/Adidas Scholar All-American (clearly all those headers didn’t impact his classroom performance). Ilkka also brought home many conference honors from the MAC (UK now plays in the Sun Belt), where he was named MAC Newcome of the Year (1998), earned All-MAC honors every year in Lexington, led UK to back-to-back-to-back MAC (say that five times fast) Tournament titles from 1999-2001.
#85: Cliff Hagan (Men’s Basketball)
Cliff Hagan holds a very rare honor in the world of Kentucky basketball. He won a state title at Owensboro High school in 1949 (in which he only scored 41 points in the title game), and won a national championship for the Big Blue in 1951. As if he couldn’t be more involved in the history of Kentucky sports, after his professional days were over, he returned to UK to serve as the athletics director from 1975-1988. A 2-time Consensus NCAA First Team All-American, Hagan became one of the first players to utilize the “hook” shot, and was known to be so aware of where he was on the floor that he didn’t even have to look at the goal to make a shot. And who could ever forget the delicious ribeye steaks you could get at his various restaurants in the state in the 70s and 80s.
#84: AJ Reed (Baseball)
AJ Reed was considered one of the best two-way players in college baseball by the time he was done at Kentucky and put up what many consider the best single season in the history of the sport in 2014. He was a unanimous National Player of the Year that season, and had a .336 batting average, 23 home runs, and 73 RBI while also pitching an outstanding 2.09 ERA with a 12-2 record. All of this earned Reed a 2nd round pick by the Houston Astros in the 2014 draft.
#83: Randall Cobb (Kentucky)
Randall Cobb was one of the most electrifying and versatile players to ever play football in the bluegrass. During his career he returned punts and kickoffs, caught passes at wide receiver, and was a dual-threat at quarterback. The man could do it all, as evidenced by the fact that he broke the SEC record for all-purpose yards in a season in his final year. Cobb also was the inspiration for arguably the greatest sign ever created: “The Legend of Cobb” which was updated by a fan mid-game, to track his passing, rushing, receiving, and return touchdowns.
#82: Matthew Mitchell (Women’s Basketball)
He is the winningest coach in the history of the women’s basketball program, accumulating 303 wins pacing the sidelines of Memorial Colosseum. However, it was his charismatic personality that most UK fans will remember. Matthew Mitchell turned the introduction of the women’s team at Big Blue Madness from an afterthought, to the highlight of the night with his annual dance performance which included the “Dougie”, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and a Bruno Mars impersonation. Coach Mitchell unexpectedly retired just before the start of the 2021 season. And while BBN misses it’s 2-time SEC Coach of the Year, we hope he is enjoying having more time to listen to all the latest Kelly Clarkson albums.
#81: Brandon Webb (Baseball)
The Ashland, KY native was a dominant pitcher at both UK and in the Major Leagues. Webb still holds the UK record for career strikeouts at 259, and strikeouts in a single season with 123. His numbers were good enough to get him drafted in the 8th round of the 2000 MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he went on a run that not even the Diamondbacks front office could have imagined when they picked him. From 2006-2008 he was nearly unhittable, and was making batters look sillier than Henry Rowengartner did in Rookie of the Year. Webb played in multiple All-Star games, and capped off a magical 2006 season by receiving the Cy Young. Sadly, a shoulder injury forced Webb into early retirement.
#80: Rob Bromley (Media)
Rob Bromley started at WKYT in Lexington in 1977, and decided to stick around for another 40 years until he retired in 2017. He was viewed as the ultimate professional, a truly genuine person whose calm, easy going demeanor made him feel like a family member to many sports fans. He is a member of the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, and was named the Kentucky Sportscaster of the Year by the National Sports Media Association.
#79: Derek Abney (Football)
North Dakota isn’t typically known as a hotbed for major college football talent, but it did produce arguably the best kick returner in the history of the sport, UK’s Derek Abney. Abney set seven, count ‘em, SEVEN NCAA records for kick returns and all-purpose yardage. In some seasons, special teams was a time to go the fridge and grab another beer, but not with Derek Abney on the field. He was must-see TV, and you did not want to miss what he might do with the ball in his hands. Abney returned eight kicks for touchdowns in his career (six punts and two kickoffs).
#78: Craig Yeast (Football)
If there was one thing you could depend on in 1998, it was that Tim Couch was going to get the ball to Craig Yeast. A LOT. Yeast was more reliable than a Toyota Prius, and had more receptions than any receiver in SEC history (208). Throw in 2,899 career receiving yards, multiple kicks returned for touchdowns, and it’s easy to see why he was named a Consensus First-Team All-SEC selection his senior year. Yeast is still spending time on Kentucky football fields, as he is now the head coach at Mercer County High School in Harrodsburg, his hometown.
#77: Bernie Shively (Athletic Director)
The importance of the UK Athletic Director can never be understated, and Bernie Shively was not only a good one, but he was also known for his fair-minded policy decisions. Nicknamed “Shive”, one of his most important contributions to UK was that he oversaw the construction of Memorial Coliseum and the expansion of the football stadium, McLean Stadium-Stoll Field. Shive also served one season as the head football coach in 1945. Basketball fans can still see his influence today, as he created the very first UK Invitational Basketball Tournament around the Christmas holiday.
#76: Art Still (Football)
Before there was Josh Allen, there was Art Still. The 6-foot-7 defensive end terrorized SEC lineman for years and was named a consensus first-team All-American in 1977, a year in which he broke the school single-season record for tackles for loss (22). The Cats finished that year 10-1 and ranked 6th in the country as their defense held opponents to a measly 10 points per game. Still took his talents to Kansas City as the Chiefs took him with the 2nd overall pick, and over the course of his 12-year NFL career Still was selected to four Pro Bowls.
>> Coming Next Week (June 5th): Numbers 75-51