Richie Farmer parlayed the fame he gained as a Kentucky basketball icon into two terms as the commonwealth's commissioner of agriculture. According to his attorney, Farmer will soon confess in a federal court that he turned his state office into his personal piggy bank.
Frankfort attorney J. Guthrie True said Thursday that Farmer will soon enter a plea of guilty in federal court to two charges that he misused state resources for his own benefit. If the plea agreement with prosecutors is accepted, Farmer will serve 21 to 27 months in federal prison.
So unless something unexpected occurs, the University of Kentucky — which retired a basketball uniform in Farmer's honor in 1992 — will soon face the question of whether it wants patrons in Rupp Arena, including children, to see a jersey honoring a federal prison inmate anytime they attend a UK basketball game.
Mitch Barnhart, the Kentucky athletics director, said Friday that what to do about Farmer's retired jersey is "not really an issue I've ever come across before. ... We'll take a look at other hall of fames, how they've addressed these things. I don't want to have anyone 'knee-jerk' into any kind of decision that says, 'We've got to do this tomorrow.' I don't think that's fair to anybody."
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Bear with me, and I'll tell you what I think UK should do about Farmer's retired jersey and why.
A hoops folk hero
The shame in Farmer's self-inflicted fall is that few athletes in our state's history have ever been as beloved. At Clay County in the 1980s, Farmer became a genuine Kentucky high school basketball folk hero by leading the school from the Eastern Kentucky mountains to three state title games and the 1987 Sweet Sixteen championship.
By the time Farmer ended his high school career with 51 points in a losing cause in the 1988 state finals, his popularity was so great that public pressure all but forced then-Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton to offer him a Wildcats scholarship.
Never a star at UK, Farmer eventually became a starter. He and his fellow UK classmates Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey and Sean Woods stuck with Kentucky through the crippling, Sutton-era NCAA probation. That quartet became the foundation who helped Rick Pitino rebuild Kentucky basketball from the ashes.
UK's loss to Christian Laettner and Duke in the epic 1992 NCAA Tournament round-of-eight contest ended the careers of the foursome, by then known as The Unforgettables. In an emotional, post-season awards ceremony, then-UK athletics director C.M. Newton surprised the four UK seniors by retiring their jerseys.
"No one can match what you've done," Newton told the four. "You truly put your heart into wearing the Kentucky jersey."
Not only a UK issue
The University of Kentucky is not the only institution in the commonwealth that has honored Farmer for his basketball achievements and that now must decide whether to undo the recognition.
In 1998, Farmer was inducted into the Dawahares/Kentucky High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame.
Julian Tackett, the KHSAA commissioner, said Friday he was aware of no move to have that honor withdrawn from Farmer. "He was inducted as a player," Tackett said. "His time as a player is not being changed by later-in-life events."
The Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in Louisville — the statewide sports hall — inducted Farmer in 2002.
Jim Ellis, the president of the KAHF, said Friday, "This is the first time we've had to deal with something like this. We'll get input from our board and our nominating committee into any decision we would make" regarding Farmer's hall-of-fame standing. (By way of disclosure, my Herald-Leader colleague Jennifer Smith and I both serve on the KAHF nominating committee).
When the new Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame inducted its first 16 members in 2012, Farmer was one of the honorees.
Curtis Turley, director of the high school hoops hall, said, "There hasn't been any discussion" about removing Farmer. Such a decision, Turley said, would be up to the organization's board.
Ken Trivette, the executive director of the Kentucky Association of Basketball Coaches and a driving force in the formation of the high school hoops hall, said, "If anyone asks me, I would be against (removing Farmer). What got him inducted is what he did as a basketball player. That has not changed because he's made mistakes later in his adult life."
The jersey in Rupp
Of all the awards honoring Farmer's sports achievements, the most visible is the jersey bearing his name that hangs in the Rupp Arena rafters.
The arguments for removing it are eminently legitimate, yet Farmer's jersey should stay in Rupp.
The reason is not because what he will soon admit to doing in public office is not serious. It is. A review conducted by the Kentucky state auditor alleged Farmer misused some $450,000 of state money for his own benefit. That is essentially money stolen from the people of Kentucky.
Still, in my view, a retired jersey recognizes athletic achievement, period. Farmer's "good name" may be tarnished from abusing the public trust, but his role in UK basketball history is the same now as before.
That said, all such cases should be evaluated on individual merit. If, heaven forbid, someone with a retired jersey in Rupp Arena is ever convicted of murder, a violent physical or sexual assault or child abuse, then take their jersey down and boot them from all halls of fame.
Serving prison time for political corruption, Richie Farmer will not be the only person recognized in Rupp Arena who has made significant mistakes in life. Among others who have jerseys hanging in Rupp are players who confessed to point shaving, one coach whose program was given a de facto death penalty by the NCAA and another coach who was involved in a tawdry sex scandal.
"I think you've got to be careful," UK's Barnhart said Friday. "I think there are a lot of really great athletes who have done some wonderful things competitively, and they have struggles in their personal worlds and you have to separate that out. What were they in (the hall of fame) for? I think you've got to take a look at that. None of us are perfect."
If having Richie Farmer's jersey hanging in Rupp Arena while he serves a federal prison sentence reminds our sports-crazed state that being good at basketball reveals nothing else about an individual's character, that would be a service to all who look upon it.