Hanging in the rafters above the home court of the winningest college basketball program in history are the retired jerseys and banners of the men who made Kentucky basketball into an institution. To followers of the Wildcats, the banners are more than just echoes of glories passed; they are emblems of memories now gifted from generation to generation, a lineage of hoops blueblood.
Right next to the banner of Adolph Rupp himself, patriarch of the Kentucky program and namesake of venerable Rupp Arena, hangs the number 32 of Richie Farmer. To those outside the Bluegrass State, the name likely means next to nothing. But ask the basketball-mad denizens of the area who Farmer is and you'll get a tale that weaves itself in and out of two decades of local history, a tale equal parts legend and flat, hard truth. In Kentucky, there might be thousands of Richies -- Richie Smiths and Richie Joneses and Richie Johnsons -- but there's only one Richie.
Maybe they'll recount the exploits of the stocky, mustachioed teenager who lit up Louisville Ballard for 51 points in the state finals. Or perhaps it will be a story about the night Richie returned home on a barnstorming tour to Manchester, the tiny county seat of Clay County, Ky., and treated the devoted to 110 points on 30 three-pointers. Or maybe, these days, they'll mumble a little, as if trophies long since varnished have lost their luster. To the people of Kentucky, the name Richie Farmer once held rare esteem, one gained from hardscrabble roots, basketball excellence and a fierce loyalty. But as so many former athletic stars have found, the glare of the klieg lights outside the arena can illuminate things those tens of thousands of eyes inside never saw.
Richie Farmer never much thought of the spotlight’s raw burn growing up in Clay County. Nestled in the coal hills of Southeastern Kentucky, Manchester is the sort of place you never end up. You're either from there or you're still there. Not much changes, there aren’t any new jobs and there’s never enough money for the things a county with unemployment three times the national average needs. A much-anticipated waste recycling plant that was to bring 1,400 jobs to town has yet to materialize. Recently, a vital local aid program went under.
"We got a money problem. There just isn't no money left," Mayor George Saylor says, sitting behind a pile of papers, his brow furrowed. "The last mayor piled up huge debts without raising any money. We got lots of debt."
To try and fix that Manchester bucked the protestations of the local Baptist ministers and voted to go "wet," allowing alcohol sales for the first time in the county's 200-year history.
The town itself has an aura of the forgotten. Which is not to say it's a forgotten place. The Hal Rogers Parkway makes getting there a lot easier than it used to be. But the Manchester exists in that limbo state of small towns anywhere. Stop by Pat's Snack Bar just off the main drag and though everyone may have cell phones, you can still smoke indoors, get a greasy burger made to order and a "can pop" ($.50) and play some quarter slots ("For entertainment purposes only," the taped-on sign reads).
But the grand old hotel on Main Street isn’t there anymore. They did build a new county building, but most folks thought they didn’t do enough to make it blend in. It looks too new.
The town is mostly the same one in which Farmer, his brother Russ and the rest of the legendary Clay County Tigers of the mid-1980s hoisted jump shots at weather-beaten rims on dirt courts behind their family homes. Practice started before school, the boys hitting last-second miracles and drilling free throw after free throw, just like their heroes Kyle Macy, Rick Robey and Kevin Grevey, college basketball stars just an hour and a half up I-75 at the University of Kentucky. Then they rode the school bus as it slowly wound through the hollowed-out mountains and into Manchester.
But if time hasn’t shaken Manchester out of her slumber, many folks probably don’t want it to. In 1987, Clay County High School became the focus of the entire basketball-crazed state when the Tigers captured the Sweet 16 high school basketball championship, the first time in 31 years a so-called "mountain school" had lifted the trophy. To the 1,600 or so residents of Manchester, there was nothing bigger than bringing home the state title. It put the little coal town on the map, and it made a statewide star out of their own Richie Farmer. In Clay County, it made him a legend.
To grasp the lasting impact of the accomplishment you need only look at the scattered Williams-Farmer 2011 campaign signs dotting the rocky front yards around town. Farmer, star of the ’87 state champs, is running for Lieutenant Governor now. It remains to be seen if Farmer –- with a lean resume outside of basketball, and a cascading series of gaffes -– can manage to parlay his on-court glory into one more win off it. After all, in Kentucky, basketball is king, and once Richie Farmer was the prince of Bluegrass basketball. But politics at the highest level isn’t basketball. It's a knife fight.
One of those blue and white campaign signs faces directly opposite the driveway of his boyhood home where his parents still live, which the city renamed "Richie Boulevard" a few years back. You can just make out the bright yellow sign among the low-hanging branches of an overgrown chestnut tree.
Clay County is, like much of Kentucky, sparsely populated and rural. The state itself has a deep, if often overlooked, national importance. It was the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis and, fittingly, there was no state more split during the Civil War, as families were literally torn apart by the slavery issue. Most Kentuckians still considers themselves part of the South, and there is a deep-seated distrust of outsiders with roots in war and peace and coal. In the late 19th century, coal companies sprouted up all along the state’s eastern, Appalachian edge. When the companies started bolting town after stripping the mountains bare, cynicism, depression and frustration set in. Enter basketball.
The University of Kentucky, the state’s flagship school, has fielded a basketball team since 1903. But it wasn't until Adolph Rupp became the head coach that the phenomenon of the Big Blue took off. A colorful and dominating personality, Rupp made Kentucky into the most feared program in the country, and would retire as the NCAA's winningest coach.
But during Rupp's glory years college basketball was still primarily a regional sport, so the bulk of his recruits came from nearby. Any great local player was assumed to be headed to play for Rupp. Rupp himself once mused about his Kentucky recruits, quoting scripture, "I look unto the hills, whence comes my help."
Rupp’s massive success, especially with local stars, created a legacy at the university, but he also created a way for the region’s citizens to feel and express some pride again. Maybe they weren’t as rich, cultured or progressive as other folks, but bring your players into Alumni Gym or Memorial Coliseum and our boys will beat the pants off of them. And they did. From 1943-55, the Wildcats didn't lose a game at home: 129 in a row, still a record.
That close-ranks attitude and a growing love for the game trickled down to the high school level, where inherent rivalries and a passion for winning made heroes and villains of young men in tiny gyms across the state. And each year every team in Kentucky begins the season with a chance to win the state title at the Sweet 16, one of the nation’s last single-level championships. No divisions, no classes; just one title for every team.
By the time Richie -- an eighth-grader on the varsity -- and the Tigers reached the Sweet 16 in 1984, the tournament was as big a sporting event as the state had, outside of most any game for the Wildcats. Farmer only scored one basket in that tournament, but the mere presence of Clay County among the state's hoops powers was a story. The next year, Clay County again made the Sweet 16, and Richie was named All-Tournament. Two years later, in front of 19,000 at Rupp Arena, Clay County finally won state, topping Louisville Ballard and All-American Allan Houston in overtime in the final. Richie was named MVP. Ballard got its revenge in the championship game a year later, but it was Farmer’s 51 points in a losing effort that grabbed headlines.
Kentucky Wildcats play-by-play man Tom Leach has covered basketball in the state for decades. He recalled the resonance that the Clay County run had state-wide:
"It was a small mountain mining town. There was a little bit of that Milan (Indiana) high school flavor to it. A lot of [other players] were on good teams, and led them deep into the tournament, but nothing like what Richie did. And he maybe didn’t look like the part of one of the greatest players of all time. But he looked like a great player when you saw him play the game, if not off the bus."
Farmer was listed at 5-11, but is likely a few inches shorter. Still, his competitive drive and penchant for late-game heroics were remarkable. Added Leach, "(Farmer) was clearly the driving force. Here's a guy who was maybe six feet tall, didn’t look like a guy who’d dominate a game, and yet he certainly outperformed what anybody that didn't know anything about him would expect on the look test. A leader. Back guys down, elevate and hang and shoot that little jumper."
Oscar Combs, a legendary member of the Kentucky basketball media and longtime radio personality, also recalled Farmer’s prep heroics.
"He could score from anywhere, sort of a magician with the ball," Combs said.
After his magnificent career in the Sweet 16, Farmer was now the standard of success for the tight-knit and often thin-skinned denizens of remote Eastern Kentucky. There was little question where Farmer would play next. The only problem? Kentucky wasn't recruiting the state's Mr. Basketball.
So LSU coach Dale Brown decided to. Brown came calling on Farmer the week after the state tournament ended. It had been Farmer's lifelong dream to play for the Wildcats, but then-Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton already had a small, plucky white point guard on his roster -– his son, Sean. Sutton felt the presence of the immensely popular Farmer would only lead to fans grousing about playing time.
Whatever pressure already existed for Sutton to offer Farmer a scholarship only amplified when a conference rival, particularly Brown, came inquiring. After the LSU coach visited Manchester, Sutton finally relented. Sitting in the Farmer living room, the family confirmed Sutton was indeed extending a scholarship offer. Richie accepted on the spot. Brown later claimed he recruited the two best guards in America and only got one of them, a quirky shooter named Chris Jackson.
The balancing act of in-state recruiting for any head coach for the Wildcats is a delicate one. Every homegrown star is still expected to be a Wildcat, just like it had been for Rupp. But things have changed in an age of national recruiting and AAU summer basketball. Affinities aside, talent now reigns.
Former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, who followed Sutton, addressed the issue directly: "People say, well, what about John Pelphrey and Richie Farmer? They were from Eastern Kentucky. Yes, and in no way do I want to take away from what those guys accomplished ... they were unbelievable for us ... But if they played with the [players we have] today, neither guy would play.”
Coming off back-to-back Sweet 16 MVPs, Farmer, the high school legend, played just 244 minutes as a freshman for a floundering Kentucky squad performing under the cloud of imminent NCAA punishment. Sutton would often only play Farmer late in a game the Wildcats were losing, just so no one could complain on that night's radio show. Ironically, Farmer’s crowning moment came on Senior Night, when Farmer hit a game-winning jumper in what would be Sutton's -- the coach who had only reluctantly recruited Farmer -– final home game as coach. Not long after the season, the bottom fell out, and the scandal that unfolded shook the program to its core. By the time the 1989-90 season approached, only seven players who had suited up the season before remained, only one of whom had averaged double digits in scoring. Farmer was one of the seven.
But for the holdovers it wasn't solely about loyalty. Combs recalled that the players who were left "didn’t really have anywhere else to go to. There were no other major Division I schools saying, 'We want them to come there.'"
Pitino, inheriting a program at rock bottom, set out to re-energize the Kentucky brand with only spare parts and his own charisma to work with. But for Farmer, the kid from a coal town, change didn't come easy. Before the season had even started, Combs got a call from the Farmer family asking if Richie could come over and stay for a while. "Well," said Farmer’s father, "he’s quit the team. Just keep him there until we get there." By the time the family drove up from Manchester, Pitino was there, too.
As Combs remembered it, "At the end of the day they had a little powwow and supposedly Rick said, 'If you leave, I'll leave, too' and Richie said, 'No, if I stay, you have to stay.' Things worked out, and Richie worked hard on his body and lost 20 pounds."
The decision to stay at Kentucky was a good one for Farmer. As part of the small cadre of players who stayed on during the darkest days of Kentucky’s punishment, Farmer further endeared himself to the fans that already revered him, and is now forever intertwined with the program he’d spent so many hours longing to be a part of on the dirt courts of his youth.
Though he was never a star at Kentucky, Farmer -– along with his fellow seniors Pelphrey, Sean Woods and Deron Feldhaus -– had shown that, through hard work and dedication and faith, the sort of things folks in the Bluegrass hold in the highest regard, they could do what most observers thought was impossible: Win.
On Senior Night, the school surprised Farmer and his classmates the media had dubbed "The Unforgettables" by raising their jerseys to the rafters alongside those of the most hallowed Kentucky names. Farmer, the boy who dreamed of suiting up for the Wildcats, was now forever enshrined among the program’s legends.
The storybook ending was not to be, however. In Farmer's last official game, you can see him standing under the basket as Christian Laettner's game-winner drops through the net in the 1991 East Regional Final, one of college hoops’ greatest games. While the Duke team erupts, Farmer turns and walks wordlessly, stunned, his head bowed. Farmer would shed his tears in the locker room.
But despite the finish, all of that basketball glory gave Richie Farmer options. After his playing career ended, Farmer returned to Manchester. But when you’re more popular than the sitting governor, the lure of the political arena can be mighty. In 2003, Farmer was persuaded to run for Commissioner of Agriculture, an office Oscar Combs rightly noted was “a popularity contest.” Unsurprisingly, Farmer romped to a huge win, garnering nearly two-thirds of the vote. He was re-elected four years later, winning an unprecedented number of votes for a Kentucky constitutional office.
Term-limited, Farmer was soon being talked about for higher office, despite a relative lack of executive experience. As Commissioner he’d spearheaded the successful ‘Kentucky Proud’ campaign to support the state’s agricultural products, and cut budgets. But two terms as Ag Commissioner to the governor’s mansion is a big jump. Still, Farmer’s name recognition and status in the Bluegrass is such that no one doubted he could make a strong run, whatever the substance of his political resume. Senate President David Williams, himself ready to challenge for the Republican nomination for governor, sought to pre-empt a Farmer bid by asking (or persuading) him to run as a ticket. Farmer accepted.
Farmer proved a more rough-edged candidate than expected. Instead of a referendum on incumbent Steve Beshear’s policies or Williams' vision, Williams –- a backroom dealer and political muscle man who is sometimes referred to as the "Bully from Burkesville" -– now hoped to have a large chunk of votes in his pocket. Certainly, the campaign did nothing to distance itself from Farmer’s basketball glories. On each "Williams-Farmer 2011" poster and sign is the outline of a basketball in the ubiquitous royal blue and white of the Kentucky Wildcats. A visit to the campaign's website features a prominent photo of Farmer catching a basketball in his hands.
There's nothing outlandish in any of this, of course. Plenty of former athletes have used their recognition for athletic success as a springboard to political office. Most notably for Kentuckians, former baseball star Jim Bunning won three terms as a Senator. Farmer brings a uniquely Kentucky quality to the process, however. His life is a manifestation of a peculiar strain of boyhood fanship endemic to the Bluegrass State. Growing up, it’s said, every boy wants to win the Sweet 16 and then suit up for the Wildcats. It was Farmer's dream. That accomplishment has now given him a shot at something much larger, and even more lasting.
Just having an association with the UK program has opened doors for former players that otherwise would never have been opened. A lot of former players find work in insurance or car sales, where they get paid to show up and talk about the big game. Others have gone on to lucrative business careers fueled by connections they received for granting entree into the realm of Kentucky basketball. The cache of being a former player is for some a chit to be cashed, and cashed, and cashed again. For a few, the attraction of trading access for cash has been ruinous.
"[Being a Kentucky player is] a fishbowl for coaches and for players," says Leach. "There's good and bad from that. At the best of times, it's one of the best places to be -– adulation, and you have opportunities to get in doors just from being inside this program."
Farmer hasn't exactly cashed his fame in. Like any shrewd (read: successful) politician, he used it at the ballot box instead of at the bank. But running for Ag Commissioner and running for the statehouse are proving very different challenges. That he is running at all doesn’t really surprise Leach or Combs, though.
"No, I'm not surprised," answered Combs. "Because you could see he has the personality from the word go.
"Because of his athletic gifts, so long as he stayed on the straight path, short of committing murder or something, he would have the opportunity to do something big," Combs added. "He’s got a great laugh and that little twang in his voice is a plus one, not a minus one [in Kentucky politics]."
A few minutes from Farmer's office at the Department of Agriculture in Frankfort sits the Kentucky State Capitol. The building is imposing on purpose, a physical manifestation of the ideals of representative government and of all that’s good with Democracy (with a capital 'D'). There are columns and frescoes and statues of the state's most illustrious politicians, plus plenty of Beaux-Arts flourishes throughout and enough marble to bring a smile to even your hardest-to-please rap millionaire. It is, in short, a place designed to inspire and to pay homage to mythic glory.
In real life, we often lose our heroes to stupidity and to cynicism. We create heroes where there are none. We elevate the undeserving, or under-prepared, onto wobbly pedestals they can't help but tip over. Even more often, we make Gods of those supremely talented in one thing. Then we act surprised, affronted, disheartened when those gifted but flawed one-trick marvels prove to be your average idiot at everything else.
As mythological figures go, there are few that can match Richie Farmer in the Bluegrass State, where there's basketball, politics and horses. A bevy of folks can lay claim to greatness in any one of these, but only a very few have made a mark in more than one. Farmer has. But he’s not someone who has had to face many enemies, political or otherwise. For all the goodwill his playing career engendered with fans, voting is still a fiercely private and valued commodity for most people, no matter what frustrations they may express about the process. In private, past athletic glory may prove insufficient.
Thus far in his quest for the second most powerful position in the state, Farmer has found that name recognition can only carry you so far. At some point, people start asking questions. Hard ones. And under that scrutiny, the myth of Richie begins to break down. His whole life, whatever Farmer may have been like off the basketball court, all that mattered was that, between the lines, he was a star. Now, Farmer the man and the commissioner matter, and both are a mess.
Farmer's wife of 13 years, Rebecca, filed for divorce in early April, and a judge has ordered mediation. Details leaked out about sloppy accounting within the Department of Agriculture: billing $1,436 for a stay at a suite at the Hilton Lexington Downtown during the Sweet 16 tournament when the event was only 20 miles from his home; using $10,000 of taxpayer funds for a conference in St. Croix while state workers were being furloughed and budget woes continued. Complaints of a hiring fix made local news. And there was a widely panned performance in a Lt. Governor's debate. For a guy whose basketball career had always been beyond reproach, Farmer was proving to be just another politician. Or, even worse, just an ordinary man with troubles in over his head.
The Republican establishment has been fending off rumors of Farmer's possible removal from the ticket. A question to this end posed to the Williams-Farmer campaign spokesman predictably received a 'No comment,' but talk to folks in and out of Frankfort and they'll tell you that the Farmer gambit has not paid off, yet. Some still hold out hope, having seen how hard Farmer campaigned down the stretch in his two past races. But even if it's a lost cause, there are still many who think Farmer himself is not the problem.
"It ain't him. It's [David] Williams," said Saylor, the beleaguered Manchester mayor. "I've had folks tell me they wouldn’t vote for [Williams] for anything, but they’d vote for Richie."
Despite his struggles, that such a troubled candidate as Farmer could be forgiven his trespasses despite meager accomplishments speaks volumes about his ongoing popularity. George Saylor knows Richie will win Clay County, no matter what happens. An early summer poll showed the Williams-Farmer ticket trailing by 21 points, and more recent ones have been no better.
In his autobiography, a slim and photo-filled 94-page tome hastily published just after his UK career ended, Farmer wrote of his decision to stick with the probation-addled Kentucky program, "My parents always instilled in me that once you start something, you never give up."
Perhaps the same is true now as Richie Farmer the man and politician faces the toughest challenge of his post-basketball life. Always cool in the clutch, Farmer may yet have the steel to close the gap. But as summer fades into election season, like the local hoops legend's final games in high school and college, it appears the ending again may not be solely up to him.