LEXINGTON, Ky. — Reports of our demise have not been exaggerated at all. In three days, this website will self-destruct.
As we all brace for the sad demise of SEC Country, one of our terrific editors (Ken Bradley, who you should hire, media companies everywhere!) suggested that the writers take some time to reflect on their work over the last two-plus years and share some of it before we go. So I’ve done that.
Gathered below, my best stab at an off-the-top-of-my-head collection of the 10 (well, more than that, because I cheated) best stories/columns I’ve written for the site since June 2016. Not all of these are UK-related, so feel free to skip around — but read fast, because they might be gone by Saturday.
One of my early assignments at SEC Country, where I was hired to be a UK basketball beat writer and league-wide columnist on football and other things, was a sad and special one: remember the life of the most influential coach in women’s college basketball history. It was a privilege and daunting task to attempt — on deadline and with no real connections at UT — to capture the essence of the life of such a giant.
When Mullen gets Florida’s offense cranked up again and makes the Gators SEC contenders again, which I assume he will, let’s please not forget that he welcomed a 5-star recruit at Mississippi State who’d pummeled a woman. And when I challenged him on it at SEC Media Days, his answers were a total disgrace.
The sad thing about the otherwise smart move of SEC Media Days to Atlanta this year is that it ends a long-running tradition of fans gathering in the lobby of The Wynfrey in Hoover, Ala., every summer to get a glimpse of their favorite coaches and players. I waded into that strange little ecosystem two years ago and came away with a new appreciation for the kind of fans some would call crazy.
This was not my best writing or deepest reporting, but it was by far my most-read story in two years at SEC Country — some 160,000 page views, I believe. Why? Because as some Kentucky fans complain of one-and-done fatigue, the biggest reason is not getting enough time to fall in love with the players as people. This story, of Fox inviting a classmate with cerebral palsy to tag along when John Calipari made an in-home recruiting visit, humanized him for Big Blue Nation. It resonated in a way that surprised me at the time, but I get it now.
Kentucky basketball fans love homegrown players. Not having more of them is very high on the very short list of complaints BBN can come up with for the wildly successful John Calipari era. So I wanted to capture the essence of what it’s like to play for the Wildcats as an in-state kid, and Willis and Hawkins agreed to pen letters to the fans — with my help — describing exactly that. As Willis explained, the roar of Rupp’s crowd is like “when you have your first little girlfriend and … you get butterflies in your stomach.”
I didn’t do nearly as much league-wide football writing as I’d hoped at SEC Country, but this one was a really fun assignment. I grew up on Saturday mornings with Chris, Herbie and Lee on College GameDay, so spending an entire day with Fowler leading up to FSU-Bama (No. 1 vs. No. 3) to open the 2017 season was sort of surreal. To become the voice of college football — which I think Fowler is, calling the primetime Saturday night games now — he had to leave behind GameDay. We talked about that and much more while I watched him prepare to guide America through another blockbuster matchup.
I’m cheating a little bit here, sneaking in a two-for-one, because earlier in the week leading up to Kentucky-Florida last fall, I wrote a sort of tongue-in-cheek feature on The Cursed Child, a UK fan born on the day of the Wildcats’ last win against the Gators in football. Kentucky hasn’t won in the series since, and it was hard to believe the curse isn’t real watching the latest stunning loss to Florida.
I’m going to cheat again here and link to three other stories and still count this as one. My No. 1 goal as a beat writer has been to provide coverage you won’t get anywhere else, and my trip to Memphis to profile Wiseman, No. 1 in the Class of 2019, is an example. Out of that also came Penny Hardaway’s first clear admission that he wanted to coach college basketball — and soon after, he was hired at his alma mater Memphis, where he’s now battling UK for Wiseman. The day I learned SEC Country was shutting down, I was in Georgia working on profiles of 5-star Kentucky freshmen EJ Montgomery and Ashton Hagans, who broke the news to me that he definitely was reclassifying. Give those a read, because to my knowledge they’re the most in-depth stories out there on two new Cats and the one they want most for next year.
The story of SGA and his 7 a.m. workouts that transformed him from seventh-best recruit in the Cats’ 2017 signing class to one-and-done NBA lottery pick will be one John Calipari tells his teams for years to come. And it all culminated in March when the normally mild-mannered Gilgeous-Alexander put a finger to his lips to Shhhhhhhhhh the hostile crowd as Kentucky advanced to the Sweet 16.
There have been some really cool trips in my seven years covering Kentucky, including two to the Bahamas. (Sadly, I think I’m going to miss this summer’s return trip.) On the first one, back in 2015, I got John Calipari to open up about his flirtation with the Cleveland Cavaliers. On the last one, when UK played Arizona State at The Atlantis, I sat down one-on-one with a shirtless Malik Monk after practice and got the story of the huge tattoo of a playground across his chest. If my time covering the Cats is up (I don’t think it is), I hope you’ll remember my work for teaching you something you didn’t know.
Thanks for reading.