A recurring dream played a part in Oliver White’s decision to become a college student again more than 30 years after leaving the University of Kentucky campus.
White, who played football for UK in the early 1980s, experienced a common anxiety dream. He calls it a “nightmare.” He is late for class. Or he suddenly realizes he has not done the assigned work.
He did not need anyone to interpret this dream. He knew it was inspired by a hollow incompleteness he felt in his life. To prepare for the NFL Draft, he left UK a semester shy of completing work on a degree. This decision gnawed at his soul.
“It was something I always wanted to finish,” he said last week. “It was always in the back of my mind.”
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The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted White in the 10th round. He lasted one season. He got married. He became the father of two sons. He did some coaching, rising to the high school level in Louisville. He said he worked in manufacturing as a supervisor and plant manager, making between $55,000 and $65,000 a year.
“And that’s OK,” he said. “It’s not breaking the bank, but it’s a living. But, I don’t know, I just feel I can do more than that.”
White remembered how his coach at UK, the late Jerry Claiborne, kept in his wallet a list of his former players who had not gotten degrees. When a player got his degree, Claiborne crossed the name off the list.
“I’m sure I was on his list when he passed,” White said. “I hated that that happened because he was such a great man.”
The clincher came when his sons earned college degrees: Aaron in criminal justice at Eastern Kentucky University and Alec in political science at the University of Louisville.
“It got to the point where it’s my turn, now,” White said.
What UK calls “The Post-Eligibility Program” enabled White to return to college. The program, which C.M. Newton launched as Director of Athletics in 1989, is what’s commonly known in college athletics circles as a “lifetime scholarship.” UK pays for tuition and books to help any former athlete complete his or her work for a degree. There’s no time limit on a return.
Among the more than 150 ex-Cats who have returned and gotten degrees are such former stars as Jodie Meeks (basketball), Randall Cobb (football) and Ryan Strieby (baseball). Former basketball big man Dakari Johnson is using the program.
Unbeknownst to White, his story bolsters a radical idea proposed by one of the leaders in the effort to reform college athletics. David Ridpath, president of the Drake Group and a professor of sports business at Ohio University, is among those who think a college education should be a key component of college athletics.
Unlike others, Ridpath suggests that the lifetime scholarship bridge the eternal gap between the academic and athletics worlds.
“On the surface, we’d love to have college sports be about education first and foremost,” he said, “and not about elite (athletic) development. But I think in college basketball, that’s what it really is now.”
Kentucky’s Hamidou Diallo is testing the waters, as they say, and might be part of this year’s NBA Draft even though he never played a game in the one semester he spent at UK (so far). And it’s not just Kentucky. An injury reduced Kyrie Irving’s Duke “career” to 11 games.
Why, Ridpath asks, must an undergrad college education be restricted to ages 18 to 22? Wouldn’t it be more honest to give players the freedom to devote their energies to athletic improvement with the understanding that a college education can be deferred to some future time?
“I’d be for a kid going to UK and not going to a single class,” Ridpath said, “and having a lifetime scholarship. He and she can come back at any time of their life and get their college education.”
This is a bridge too far for Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s Senior Vice President of Basketball.
“The part about not attending class, or even a reduced load, I’d be adamantly opposed,” Gavitt said. “I don’t know anybody who would support that. … They’re college students, and they’re basketball players. It has always been that way and should always be that way.”
Ridpath, who served in the U.S. Army before entering college, said an older person is more grounded and better able to appreciate what a college education means.
That was true for White.
“I always had, like, a 2, a 2.4 GPA,” he said, “and I did that just because if you had over a 2.0, you never had to go to study hall. And I (later) felt bad about that because I never applied myself.”
At age 53, White applies himself. He expects to graduate in May 2018 with a degree in community leadership and development. “I’d love to work with a non-profit organization or work with the university,” he said.
White has already done the latter. He volunteers in UK’s Center for Academic and Tutorial Services (C.A.T.S.). He’s shared the story of his life’s journey with classmates.
“I was talking to Bam (Adebayo) just the other day,” he said. White wished Adebayo well in pro basketball.
“I hope it works out for you,” White said he told Adebayo. “But come back and finish up when you can. Take some online courses. Do whatever you have to do to get that degree. I don’t care who you are or how good you are, you’re not going to play sports forever.”
Former Kentucky star Tony Delk was initially unaware of the massive round of layoffs announced by ESPN last week. A commentator for ESPN’s SEC Network, he said he didn’t know about the layoffs until his agent called.
When asked if he considered himself as having a career in television, Delk chuckled.
“I was always doing some other things on the side,” he said.
For instance, Delk directed a youth basketball tournament Easter weekend.
“I’m always looking at different opportunities,” he said. “Even considering maybe going back into coaching at some point in time. I’m always an equal opportunity guy.”
Delk, who is fifth on UK’s career scoring list (1,890 points), is one of only three players to lead the Cats in scoring three straight seasons. He did it in 1993-94, 1994-95 and 1995-96. The other two are Jack Givens (1975-76, 1976-77 and 1977-78) and Cotton Nash (1961-62, 1962-63 and 1963-64).
After his 12-year NBA career, Delk went into coaching: two years on John Calipari’s UK staff, another two years at New Mexico State. He said he left coaching because the time demands put too much of a strain on his family life.
With his children getting older, Delk again thinks of coaching as an opportunity worth considering.
Tony Bradley became the first North Carolina freshman to enter his name in an NBA Draft since Brandan Wright in 2007. By contrast, Kentucky has had 22 freshmen enter an NBA Draft in John Calipari’s eight seasons as coach (that’s counting Hamidou Diallo this year and Enes Kanter in 2011).
Each of the wildly different approaches brought success.
UK fans might recall that North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said in Memphis that he had no philosophical objection to one-and-done players.
“I’d love to have one or two of those one-and-dones,” he said at a news conference the day before UNC played Kentucky in the South Region finals. “And then I’d like to have some other guys like a Marcus Paige or a Brice Johnson.”
Ideally, Kentucky wants such a blend of star freshmen and experienced veterans. Its national championship team of 2011-12 had it with star freshmen such Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, plus knowledgeable vets including Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones.
Williams suggested that Kentucky and North Carolina are not as different as it might appear. When asked about Calipari signing so many five-star prospects, the UNC coach quipped, “Yeah, there’s a difference. He got them and I didn’t.”
And the winner is …
In The Wall Street Journal on Monday, columnist Jason Gay called for an end to awards shows celebrating achievement in sports, show business or anything else. No more Heisman Trophy show, ESPYs, etc., etc.
After acknowledging a weakness for the Golden Globes, Gay wrote “there isn’t a single awards show that passes for even mediocre entertainment.”
This month’s NFL Draft, which is more or less an extended awards show, did not have the overall No. 1 pick in attendance. Myles Garrett watched with family and friends as part of a TV deal with the NFL Players Association.
Next up: an NBA Awards show on June 26 and televised by TNT.
In addition to announcing the NBA’s Most Valuable Player and other traditional awards, the show will also include several new awards. Former UK players Devin Booker (Top Performance of the Year) and Tyler Ulis (Game Winner of the Year) are nominated for awards.
Winners will be determined by fan voting at NBA.com, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Voting ends June 22.
No surprise that Gay found the NBA’s new awards show a bit much.
“That it’s being dragged out until the last week of June only makes it more unctuous,” he wrote. “Here is all you need to know about the value of awards ceremonies: Bob Dylan blew off the ceremony to get his Nobel. Now that is what I call an MVP.”
To Dwight Anderson. He turned 57 on Friday. … To LeRon Ellis. He turned 48 on Friday. … To Chris Harrison. He turns 44 on Sunday (today).