Fan Fare: Ranking the 25 coolest UK athletes of all time

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 13, 2011 

Lists about who is cool have become something of the rage in the sports media. GQ seemed to get things rolling with its list of the 25 coolest athletes (Ali. Jordan. Namath.) of all time.

The Los Angeles Times got in the spirit with a compilation of the 50 coolest athletes (Koufax. Magic. Tarzan — the Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Johnny Weissmuller.) in Southern California.

It got me thinking: Who are the coolest University of Kentucky athletes from my lifetime?

To be cool, you have to have style, swagger, be unique yet catch the zeitgeist.

It would seem self-evident that a sports performer must be good at their game to be "cool." However, I would argue many great athletes are not necessarily cool.

For my list, I chose to rank only Wildcats athletes that I have first-hand memory of seeing play (which starts in the early 1970s). I'm certain Vito "Babe" Parilli and Pat Riley were great hipsters in their day but I don't remember them as UK athletes.

Rajon Rondo may be the current pro athlete with a UK tie who has the highest CQ (coolness quotient). However, you won't find him on this list because the point guard didn't really grow into his coolness until he hit the NBA.

Ultimately, cool is in the eye of the beholder. With that in mind, here is my list of the Top 25 coolest UK athletes.

25. James Lee. When the slam dunk was legalized in the 1970s, the old-fogey faction of Kentucky fans treated it as an affront to the game. It was the thunderous, one-handed throw downs of Lee that made the dunk acceptable in the Kingdom of the Blue.

24. David Johnson. Jerry Claiborne-era cornerback Johnson (not to be confused with the Hal Mumme-era safety of the same name) streaked his hair with vibrant colors of blue, green and red and wore it styled like Prince. He incorporated earrings and other jewelry before that was accepted for guys. Being brave enough to adhere to your own style even if it defies convention is always cool.

23. Jay Shidler. A peroxide blonde who could knock down jump shots from two time zones away, The Blonde Bomber had pizzazz.

22. Jenny Hansen. From the time she seemingly came out of nowhere and started winning NCAA all-around gymnastics championships for a school not accustomed to such, there was always a mystique about Hansen.

21. Ramel Bradley. When your nickname is "Smooth" and you borrow a signature hand sign from Jay-Z's The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, you pretty much have to make this list.

20. Craig Yeast. Quicker than a supersonic jet was (and is) always cool. So was making The Head Ball Coach all but bury his visor in The Swamp's turf in 1998 with three touchdown plays against the mighty Gators, all longer than 74 yards.

19. Dicky Lyons Jr. Remember when Lyons Jr. infuriated Rich Brooks by guaranteeing a road victory over Mississippi State in 2006? All Lyons Jr. did was go to Starkville, roll up 117 yards receiving and make a circus TD catch to spark the Kentucky victory that launched the turnaround of the Brooks era. Walking the talk is as righteous as sports gets.

18. A'dia Mathies. Plays basketball with a poker face and the fearlessness of an assassin.

17. Derek Anderson. A sky-walking game and a mega-wattage smile generated more coolness than an industrial meat locker.

16. Dwight Anderson. "The Blur" was John Wall 1.0.

15. Jared Lorenzen. The Hefty Lefty. The Round Mound of Touchdown. The Pillsbury Throwboy. Even if a 300-pound man playing quarterback hadn't been inherently cool, "J-Load" would have made the list off nickname power alone.

14. Lea Wise. During a UK women's basketball tour of Japan, the early-1980s shooting guard (1,179 career points) with the Farrah Fawcett hair became such a national fascination in The Land of the Rising Sun, they were putting her on magazine covers.

13. DeMarcus Cousins. When people all across a state have a life-sized poster of you hanging on their walls, you have a unique appeal.

12. Derek Abney. Nice guys can be cool — especially when they return six kicks (four punts, two kickoffs) for touchdowns in one season (2002).

11. Mark Higgs. The big smile. The massive thighs on an otherwise small (5-foot-8) body. A penchant for electrifying, cut-back runs. It all combined to make Higgy one of a kind.

10. Victoria Dunlap. The ability to do freakishly athletic things on a basketball court will always be in style.

9. Randall Cobb. Cobb had both "presence" and class, but what made him cool was a knack for shining (five game-winning, fourth-quarter touchdowns in his career) when the stage lights were brightest.

8. Jamal Mashburn. Soft-spoken and classy can be off-the-charts cool when it comes in the form of one of the best basketball players and best nicknames (The Monster Mash) in Kentucky history.

7. Steve Johnson. Launched the "Fly-Guy" craze. Composed a UK football-themed free-style rap that has been viewed over 582,000 times on YouTube. Caught game-winning touchdowns to beat two top-10 teams in 2007. Strong coolness résumé.

6. Rex Chapman. Part of the fascination with Chapman was that he provided something of a racial synthesis, a white basketball player with a "black game." The rest of it was King Rex was a one-man boy band when it came to 1980s teen-idol status.

5. Kenny Walker. The aerial show "Sky" Walker brought to UK basketball was only enhanced when he started wearing those space-age goggles.

4. Tim Couch. What made the pride of small-town Hyden fun in my book was that he talked smack during games like he came from the Bronx. That, and he could really throw a football.

3. Valerie Still. Way back (1979-83) when women's college basketball was still a curiosity, Still showed the skeptics what was possible. She compiled truly astounding numbers (2,763 career points) and did it with style and verve.

2. John Wall. When you launch a dance craze, have rappers writing lyrics about you and make first-team AP All-America as a point guard, you've packed a lot of cool into your one year of college basketball.

1. Sonny Collins. In the 1970s, cool was brash, bold and loud. With his Afro wigs and fur coats, running back Collins — still the all-time leading rusher in Kentucky football history — was 1970s cool to the 100th power.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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