“This is the final article in a 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.
#25: Craig Skinner (Volleyball)
Craig Skinner brought high expectations when he was hired from his Assistant Coach position at perennial volleyball power Nebraska to be the head man at Kentucky. After 17 seasons, the bar for success has been raised so high that Shagari Alleyne couldn’t reach it on his tip-toes. That’s because in April 2021, Skinner did something that very few thought possible, which was winning a national championship at Kentucky (and briefly turning us into a Volleyball School). Schools like UK just don’t win big-time volleyball games. In fact, until 2021, the only school east of the Mississippi to win a title was Penn State, and there had NEVER been an SEC school to win it all. Add in the fact that before Skinner arrived, the Cats had not had a winning season in the previous five years, and had not even made an NCAA Tournament since 1993, and that makes what he has done here even more impressive.
#24: Jomo Thompson (Cheerleading)
While Kentucky cheerleading is not a varsity program under the NCAA, it is a competitive sport that is operated and supervised by the athletic director (Mitch Barnhart). Up until 2 years ago, former coach Jomo Thompson would have likely made this list under much different circumstances. As much as Coach Cal wants to talk about being the gold standard, there is nobody who better meets that definition than the UK cheerleaders. They have won TWENTY-FOUR national championships. Eighteen of those titles were won under the leadership of head coach Jomo Thompson. However, in the spring of 2020, Thompson was fired after an internal investigation revealed members of the squad took part in hazing activities, alcohol use, and public nudity at an annual off-campus team retreat at Lake Cumberland. The media frenzy then followed, and it was a massive black-eye for the program, the athletic department, and the entire university. Thompson’s influence, both good and bad, will have implications for the program for many years to come.
#23: The Unforgettables (Sean Woods, Richie Farmer, John Pelphrey, Deron Feldhaus)
The Unforgettables deserved better. That was part of what made the Laettner shot so painful. Because not only did it prevent Kentucky from going to the Final Four, but it ended the careers of the most beloved quartet Kentucky fans had ever watched play. The Unforgettables deserved better because this group of young men stuck with the UK program through 2 years of probation and post-season bans. Fans also especially wanted this group to succeed because of their Bluegrass roots. John Pelphrey was from Paintsville and was Mr. Basketball in 1987; Deron Feldhaus was from Mason County and was the ’87 Gatorade Kentucky Player of the Year; and Richie Farmer, the man with the glorious mustache, hailed from Clay County where he was Mr. Basketball in 1988. Sean Woods was the lone outsider representing the Hoosier state. While the national media may only remember them for their role in “The Greatest Game Ever Played” (I dispute that claim), fans in Kentucky will always remember them for leading the Cats back to national prominence.
#22: Oscar Combs (Media)
To many of the older members of Big Blue Nation, Oscar Combs was a godsend. That’s because in 1976, Oscar decided to launch “The Cats’ Pause”, a weekly publication devoted to UK Athletics. At the time, there was no media that was completely devoted to covering the Cats. There was no Twitter, no blogs, no 24/7 sports network. But no matter where you lived in the world, you could subscribe to the Cats’ Pause and get up to date on all the happenings of the beloved Wildcats. After a few years of growing success, Combs then decided to add a Kentucky Basketball Yearbook, which remains hugely popular to this day. He was also legendary on the radio, where he co-hosted the UK Radio Network’s pregame football and basketball shows, and many fans grew up listening to his voice for hours before a big game started. In 2001, he was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. Oscar is kind of like Mr. Wizard when it comes to UK basketball, he can answer any question you could ever have about UK sports, and there is nobody with better stories about past players than Oscar.
#21: Keith Madison (Baseball)
Keith Madison is the winningest coach in the history of Kentucky baseball. During his incredible 25 years in Lexington, he led UK to their first two trips to the NCAA Tournament (1988 and 1992) and won 735 career games. It is the most wins by any Kentucky coach not named Adolph Rupp. Upon being offered the job by then AD Cliff Hagan, Madison, who was 26 years old at the time, told his wife, Sharon, he had been offered the Kentucky job. Sharon then informed him of the news that he was going to be a dad. Not a bad day for the Madison household. The ’88 team was Madison’s best and came within one win of advancing to the College World Series (the closest the Cats have ever been). After his 25th and final season, Madison would be the third-winningest coach in SEC history. He left behind a legacy of character and sportsmanship, as well as leaving the program in a better place as he helped raise money for facilities and upgrades to Cliff Hagan Stadium.
#20: Rex Chapman (Men’s Basketball)
“King Rex” was a Rockstar. From the moment the Owensboro native stepped foot on campus, he was mobbed by fans and autograph seekers. He is the first player I vaguely remember watching as a 5-year-old UK fan. I even owned a shirt that said “Batman, Superman, Chapman” (Rex would have made a killing in NIL money). He was cool, swaggy, and could jump out of the gym. Even though he left for the NBA after only 2 years at Kentucky, his impact was incredible, but Chapman has always been surrounded by backlash from many fans. Chapman was and always will be outspoken about his beliefs, and has an opposite political view than many in the state (just check out his Twitter comments). After trouble with addiction after his NBA career, Chapman went to rehab and changed his life. Rex has also become a King on Twitter. His famous “block or charge” tweets went viral and he now has over a million followers, many of whom never even know he played basketball.
#19: Jenny Hansen (Gymnastics)
I learned a lot of interesting things in doing research for this article, but I’ll be honest, I had no idea that a former UK gymnast became a Hollywood stuntwoman. But that is the case for gymnastics legend, Jenny Hansen, who has done stunt work for multiple television shows. On top of that, she was a trainer on Season 14 of The Biggest Loser, and has even worked for Disney as part of their live theme shows at theme parks. (Disney of course can’t reveal which character she played). At UK, Jenny won as many national championships, eight, as the men’s basketball team has ever won. She was the 1995 SEC Female Athlete of the Year, and was recognized as the best athlete in Kentucky, being named the Kentucky Sportsman of the Year by state media. By the time she was done, Jenny Hansen became the most decorated gymnast in the history of the NCAA.
#18: Jamal Mashburn (Men’s Basketball)
In my opinion, the most important recruit in the history of Kentucky basketball was Jamal Mashburn. In 1990, he made a decision that would change his life and the fortunes of the basketball program, which was leaving New York City to play in Lexington, KY for Rick Pitino. He did this despite knowing the team would be ineligible for the postseason his freshman year. In his sophomore year, the Monster Mash led the Cats to the Elite 8 where they lost to Duke and Christian Laettner. The next season though, Kentucky was back where they belong, in the Final Four. Mashburn was a star that season: SEC Player of the Year and First Team All-American were just a few of the many accolades he received. Had Mashburn not decided to bring his talents to Lexington, who knows how this could have impacted the monumental rebuilding job that Pitino was tasked with. Mashburn remains the 6th all-time leading scorer in school history (1,843 points) despite only playing 3 seasons.
#17: John Wall (Men’s Basketball)
If Jamal Mashburn was the most important recruit in UK history, John Wall was the most invigorating. After years of mediocrity in the final years of Tubby Smith and Billy Gillispie eras, John Wall was the shot in the arm that Kentucky fans so desperately wanted. In just one season, Wall revitalized the men’s basketball program (along with new coach John Calipari), and helped them reach the top of the SEC and national rankings. Wall was a superstar from minute one. His “John Wall Dance” at Big Blue Madness was imitated by students and grandmothers alike. Campus bars served up John Wall shots. Heck, he even hit a game winning shot in his FIRST game! Wall was the first national player of the year in program history, set the single season assist record (although it was later broken by Tyler Ulis), and earned himself the number 1 overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft (the first Cat to be chosen first).
#16: Paul “Bear” Bryant (Football)
What if Bear Bryant never left Kentucky? It’s one of the most fascinating questions to ponder for the Big Blue Nation. Many casual fans might not even know that Bryant spent eight successful seasons as the Wildcat coach, including what UK claims was a national championship in 1950. The cats won 71% of their games under Bear Bryant, the biggest one being a victory over Oklahoma in the 1951 Sugar Bowl. Kentucky’s only outright SEC championship came the year before in 1950. His decision to leave for Texas A&M in 1954 (for less money) was a devastating blow to the program. Blanton Collier would win 7 games the next year with Bryant’s players, but Kentucky would go another 21 years without another 7-win season. While the fact that Kentucky was deemed a “basketball school” and Adolph Rupp was the center of attention is a big part of why he left, don’t believe the story that Bryant left because Rupp got a Cadillac while he got a cigarette lighter from the University. Bear confirmed that story was made in vein.
#15: Mark Stoops (Football)
Mark Stoops only needs 2 victories in the upcoming football season to break the school record for career wins currently held by Bear Bryant. Stoops has the football program positioned as a legitimate contender year-in and year-out in the SEC. Something UK fans haven’t seen since, well, Bear Bryant. Stoops has also broken more records than a bull in a record store, including but not limited to: school-record six consecutive bowl games, school-record fourth straight bowl win, will start his school-record 10th season as head coach this year, finished in sole possession of 2nd place in the SEC East for the first time ever. If Stoops can ever break down the barrier of winning the East and making the SEC Championship game, the statue should be built immediately. All of his accomplishments are even more remarkable given the state of the program when he inherited it. Kentucky was coming off a 2-10 season with a roster void of SEC caliber talent. From that he beat Florida for the first time since ’86, had our first win at Tennessee since 1984, got us to our first New Year’s Day Bowl since 1951, and first 10-win season since 1977. Go ahead and build the statue now.
#14: Joe Craft (Other)
There are few things that happen around the UK Basketball world that don’t have Joe Craft at the center of it. The billionaire coal operator has his fingerprints, and name, on so many things in the program. He donated $6 million for a state-of-the-art practice facility (conveniently called the Craft Center). Joe gave $4.5 million, and raised another $3.5 million for the Wildcat Coal Lodge (his requirement was that “coal” be in the name), and he commissioned the artist who sculpted the famous statue of Joe B. Hall. Craft’s passion for Kentucky sports started young, as it does for most of us, when he grew up in Hazard. Don’t expect his influence to stop anytime soon. With his contributions in the new $45 million Joe Craft Football Training Facility now putting the basketball facilities to shame, I expect we will soon see the “Joe Craft Coal Death Star Galactic Center for Players Who Are Good at Basketball and Want to Learn to do Other Stuff Good Too” facility any time now.
#13: Valerie Still (Women’s Basketball)
Valerie Still was a once-in-a-generation talent the likes of which may never be seen again on the UK women’s basketball program. She is the all-time leading scorer (2,763 points) in both men’s and women’s basketball, a remarkable feat considering the number of talented players throughout the years. Not to mention that she also holds the school rebounding record (1,525). A three-time consensus All-American, Still led the Cats to a #4 national ranking in 1983 and helped protect the house with a 30-game home court winning streak from 1980-82. Valerie also helped break down a lot of barriers for women, becoming one of the first female athletes to receive an athletic scholarship shortly after Title IX was passed in the 1970s. Still had a very long pro career in Italy, followed by several years in the ABL and WNBA.
#12: John Calipari (Men’s Basketball)
It’s hard to imagine there is anyone more suited for the position of head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky than John Calipari. He loves the spotlight, he loves to talk, and he loves to win. While most newly hired coaches preach patience and trusting the process, Calipari brought in talent his first year and started winning right away. In his 13 seasons here, Cal has reached four Final Fours, seven Elite Eights, and eight Sweet Sixteens. And of course, the national championship in 2012. That team proved many coaches and media to be wrong when they said you couldn’t win a title with a team full of one-and-done freshmen. But that’s exactly what Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Marquis Teague did. Whereas Calipari had previously been the only coach to build a roster this way, after 2012, everything changed. Every coach in the country began recruiting one-and-dones. It was just another example of a way the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame coach helped revolutionize college basketball.
#11: Joe B. Hall (Men’s Basketball)
I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to start a job where you are replacing someone who was arguably the best to ever do that job. That’s the position Joe B. Hall found himself in when was hired to replace Adolph Rupp as the head basketball coach in 1972. Not to mention that you would be working in a building named after your predecessor a few years later when Rupp Arena opened. But Hall handled it all brilliantly. He guided the Cats to 297 wins (3rd most behind Rupp and Cal), eight SEC titles, and to three Final Fours, capturing the school’s fifth national championship in 1978. A huge win that proved it was possible to win a title without Rupp on the sidelines. Hall’s influence on Kentucky continued even after he retired after the 1985 season. He co-hosted a radio show with former bitter rival from Louisville Denny Crum and was a regular attendee to home basketball games, usually in his trademark blue sweater-vest. Hall passed away in January 2022 at the age of 93. The former national coach of the year will never be forgotten, and fans continue to pay their respects at his statue outside of Wildcat Coal Lodge.
#10: Rick Pitino (Men’s Basketball)
Savior and traitor. Beloved and despised. The range of emotions that Kentucky fans have felt towards Rick Pitino over the years swung like a pendulum. For 16 years, most UK fans hated Pitino because he betrayed us and went to coach at our archrival Louisville Cardinals. He was bestowed names like Traitor Rick and Benedict Pitino. He was dead to us. Flash back to the 1990s, and there might not have ever been a more idolized man in the history of Kentucky basketball, because Rick literally saved the program. The basketball program was in shambles after being put on probation from the Eddie Sutton years and it seemed unlikely that any coach worth a grain of salt would want to come to Lexington. But somehow, C.M. Newton lured Pitino here from the New York Knicks, and he proceeded to perform the impossible, which was having Kentucky back in the Final Four in just five years (1993). That was followed up with a national championship in 1996 by a team that was not only the best team in UK history, but arguably the best in the history of the sport. Pitino has often lamented that he should have never left Kentucky because it was his Camelot. But regardless, the rivalry between Calipari and Pitino made for some of the most exciting games and bitter feuds in decades.
#9: Dan Issel (Men’s Basketball)
Dan Issel was the most high-volume scorer to ever wear the blue and white. His 2,138 career points are not only the most in school history, but in the age of one-and-done and grad transfers, it seems impossible that his record will ever be broken. The fact he scored those points in only three seasons and 83 games makes it even more remarkable. In one game early in his career, Adolph Rupp called a timeout because Issel wasn’t being given the ball enough to his liking. He told his players in the huddle, “This guy is going to be Kentucky’s all-time leading scorer by the time he’s through here. I thought you might like to meet him.” Issel averaged 25.8 points per game over his career, and 33 ppg his senior season when he was a consensus First Team All-American. A member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Issel also had a tremendous professional career in the ABA and NBA where ha made the 1977 All-Star Team. He is the 2nd leading scorer in Denver Nuggets history and his number 44 is retired with the Nuggets. Dan received the nickname “The Horse” because of his work ethic and durability.
#8: Wah Wah Jones (Football & Men’s Basketball)
Wah Wah Jones starred for two national championship teams for Adolph Rupp, and was a two-time All SEC selection for Bear Bryant’s football team. Let that sink in for a moment. Jones played for two of the most iconic coaches of all time, in two different sports. There may have never been a more multitalented athlete to set foot on UK’s campus, and he is the only athlete to have his number retired in both sports. Rupp resented Jones’ involvement with the football team, but was nevertheless a member of one the greatest teams ever, the Fabulous Five, who also went on to win an Olympic gold medal in 1948 after winning the NCAA championship. Oh, and he was also on the UK baseball team! And if you’re wondering where the nickname came from, when his younger sister was learning to talk, she couldn’t say Wallace, and it instead came out as “Wah Wah” and the name stuck. Later in life, Mr. Jones was elected sheriff of Fayette County and in 1978 he started Blue Grass Tours, a charter bus company that transported UK’s basketball teams for many years.
#7: Greg Page, Nate Northington, Wilbur Hackett, Houston Hogg (Football)
In 2016, the University of Kentucky held a ceremony outside of Commonwealth Stadium to dedicate massive bronze statues of its first four black football players: Greg Page, Nate Northington, Wilbur Hackett, and Houston Hogg. Northington and Page were the pioneers of integration in the Southeastern Conference and were expected to do it together. However, tragedy struck when Page died the night before their first game from the lingering effects of a neck injury in practice that had left him paralyzed. So Northington alone became the first black football player to play in an SEC football game on September 30, 1967. A game in which he separated his shoulder and wound up in the hospital. The grief became too much, and a few weeks later, Northington transferred to Western Kentucky. Hackett and Hogg then became next in line to carry the flag of integration. In 1969, Hackett became the first black team captain in SEC football history, and in 1970 they were the first black players to complete their eligibility at UK in any sport. Their bravery over 50 years ago paved the way for today’s student athletes to have their own opportunities.
#6: Cawood Ledford (Media)
Cawood was the GOAT. For nearly four decades, Ledford was the voice of the Wildcats for generations of Kentucky fans, and he meant as much to fans as the players and coaches did. The Rupp Arena court is even named after him. In a twist of fate that not even Hollywood would believe, Ledford’s last game announcing for the Cats was the infamous 1992 game against Duke in the East Regional Finals. But Ledford was there for a lot of great victories, including calling two national championships in 1958 and 1978. He was voted Kentucky Sportscaster of the Year an unbelievable 22 times! He famously began every radio broadcast by saying “Hello Everybody, this is Cawood Ledford.” It is also believed that the now common saying of “The Wildcats will be moving from left to right (or right to left) on your radio dial” originated with Cawood. Perhaps his most popular phrase, especially in football, was after a long touchdown score he would comment “Any flags, Ralph?”
#5: Alex Groza (Men’s Basketball)
Alex Groza was the first superstar of Kentucky basketball. The team captain of the “Fabulous Five”, he won two national championships in 1948 and 1949. That team also earned the gold medal at the ’48 Olympics. He was the Final Four Most Outstanding Player during both of those title runs. At a time when offenses didn’t put up a lot of points, Groza managed to score 1,744 points during his career, which still puts him in the top 10 all time. His legacy was somewhat tarnished by the point shaving scandal that he was found to be a part of during the 1949 season. Groza was subsequently banned from the NBA for life, which is tragic because he seemed destined to have a great NBA career. After being taken with the 2nd overall pick, Groza was the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1950 and was an All-Star in 1951.
#4: Anthony Davis (Men’s Basketball)
Anthony Davis accomplished more in one year than most players accomplish over the course of their career. Not only did Davis lead Kentucky to the 2012 national championship, he was the National Player of the Year, Final Four Most Outstanding Player, National Freshman of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, and proud owner of the best unibrow in the history of sports. Not to mention he also won a gold medal in the 2012 Olympics later that summer and became the number one pick in that year’s NBA Draft. The mere presence of Anthony Davis around the rim was enough to deter most opponents from even thinking about trying to score over him. Those who did risk it, were usually soundly rejected. Davis obliterated the school’s single season record for blocked shots, swatting 186. Which was good enough for the 4th most blocks in NCAA history. I feel very confident in saying that we will never again see someone accomplish what Anthony Davis did in one year. Never.
#3: Tim Couch (Football)
Probably the most important football recruit in the history of the football program, was Tim Couch. From tiny Leslie County High School, Couch was recruited by some of the biggest names in college football, and was almost too good for fans to believe he would pick Kentucky, but he did. Many worried he might transfer after his freshman season, when then coach Bill Curry tried to force Couch into his option offense. Thankfully, UK’s administration realized what a once-in-a-generation talent they had, and hired offensive guru Hal Mumme to come to Kentucky to implement the Air Raid offense. Mumme and Couch were a match made in heaven. In Couch’s final season, the junior QB earned first-team All-American honors and was the consensus SEC Player of the Year. He threw for 4,275 yards and 36 touchdowns that year, while leading the Cats to their first New Year’s Day Bowl (Outback Bowl) in 47 years. Tim finished 4th in the Heisman voting. For his career, he finished with seven NCAA records and 14 SEC records. It was no surprise when he was chosen with the number one pick in the 1999 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. The only player in UK football history to hold that honor.
#2: Sydney McLaughlin (Track & Field)
Sydney McLaughlin has one million followers on Instagram. Her influence on social media alone would put her high on this list, but let’s talk about what she accomplished at Kentucky in her “one-and-done” season. She was the NCAA champion of the 400-meter hurdles. A race in which she won by nearly two seconds, DURING A HAIL STORM! She was the SEC champion in three events, and an All-American in five events. Sydney holds the all-time NCAA record in the 400-meter hurdle, and holds two UK records. Of course, none of this was surprising when she came to Kentucky for the 2017-2018 season as the most successful high-school track star ever. It was more of a surprise that she went to college at all and skipped going pro initially. She had already been an Olympian in the 2016 games, the youngest American since 1976. McLaughlin is now the face and future of track and field as proven by her dominating performance at the 2020 Olympics when she won the gold medal in the in 400-meter hurdles and 4×400-meter relay. Another successful one-and-done from UK, that’s how we do things here.
#1: Shaedon Sharpe (Men’s Basketball)
The best player in the history of Kentucky basketball. Sharpe is the only UK player to have zero turnovers and zero shots missed during his entire career. Was featured in some of the best layup lines fans have ever seen at Rupp Arena (I hope some of you were able to get to Rupp early to see them). A true team player who sacrificed his own playing time so that others could be featured more. Even if those players were significantly injured, Sharpe proved he would not get in their way.
Here is our real number 1 most influential person in UK sports history:
#1: Adolph Rupp (Men’s Basketball)
The Baron of the Bluegrass. The UK Athletic Department is one of the few in the country that features men’s basketball as its primary sport. The reason for that is Adolph Rupp. When he was just 29 years old, Rupp interviewed for the head coaching job at Kentucky. When asked why he should be hired he proclaimed, “Because I’m the best damned basketball coach in the nation.” Almost 100 years later, Rupp still has a claim to that title. Coaching for 42 years, winning 876 games, 27 SEC titles, and 4 national championships will give you that honor. He held the record for most wins for nearly 25 years before being passed by Dean Smith. Rupp’s teams at one point won an astounding 129 consecutive games at home. Because of a silly rule, Coach Rupp was forced to retire when he reached the age of 70, or who knows how many more games he would have won.
Like most people, Rupp also drew a lot of criticism. Mainly for his lack of recruiting African-American players to his program, which caused many people to label him as a racist. In a bit of a twist of fate, perhaps the most memorable game that Rupp ever coached was the 1966 NCAA championship game. A game UK lost to Texas Western, that boasted five African-American starters. While Kentucky had an all-white roster. That game heavily influenced American society in the middle of the civil rights movement. For many folks outside of Kentucky watching that game, Rupp was and would forever be, the villain.
No matter your opinion of Rupp, there is no doubt that his influence has penetrated more into UK athletics than anyone else. Rupp Arena is the mecca of college basketball. He produced some of the most popular teams in UK athletics history: Rupp’s Runts, The Fiddlin’ Five, and The Fabulous Five. He is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the College Basketball Hall of Fame. He was recognized as the national coach of the year three times, and SEC coach of the year seven times. He even took his 1948 team to the Olympics and won the gold medal! Adolph Rupp was an incredible coach who helped revolutionize a slow, low scoring sport into his style of running fast breaks. Kentucky basketball truly is the house that Rupp built.