Rick Stansbury says he grew up as “one of those guys.” He fit the standard profile: a Kentuckian (in his case from Meade County) who became consumed with basketball and the beloved Kentucky Wildcats.
His rite of passage into adulthood included — of course — listening to Cawood Ledford’s radio call of Kentucky games. If there was a delayed telecast of a game, Stansbury would not listen to the iconic play-by-play man. Nor would he watch the sports segment of the 11 p.m. news. He wanted to drink in all the suspense possible as he watched the late-night delayed telecast of a UK game.
He remembers going to a Kentucky Colonels game and getting autographs from Dan Issel and Louie Dampier.
Stansbury credits Kentucky basketball for his career choice. He became a coach, and a successful one (top 10 among Southeastern Conference coaches in career victories). The nomadic profession has led him to being hired this spring by Western Kentucky.
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“It’s why I’m where I am today,” he said while giving a reporter a tour of the Western Kentucky campus this month. “Because basketball was my life. That’s what I did. We worked on the farm and I played basketball.”
As head coach for Mississippi State from 1998-99 through 2011-12, Stansbury saw his affection for Kentucky basketball tested. His true Blue sports love became a dominatrix who found ever-inventive ways to inflict pain.
“Broke my fricking heart,” Stansbury said of the cruel and unusual punishment he absorbed. “My passion became my whatever-you-want-to-say: Nightmare? My nemesis?”
In chronological order, here are some details on what arguably was the most entertaining roller-coaster rivalry in Southeastern Conference history:
Erik Daniels laid in a deflected inbounds pass at the buzzer to give UK a 67-66 victory at Starkville in 2004. State, which came into the game undefeated (13-0), helped Kentucky win by missing the front end of two one-and-ones inside the final 30 seconds.
UK’s Sheray Thomas moved off his position at the lane before the Cats shot a potential clinching free throw with 5.1 seconds left in a 2007 SEC Tournament second-round game. Stansbury charged toward midcourt to make sure the referees called the violation. Perhaps to his surprise (see No. 4), they did. State’s Jamont Gordon sent the game into overtime with a three-pointer at the buzzer. State won 81-75.
The plastic bottle game at Starkville in 2010. State led by seven with four minutes left in regulation. From that point through overtime, 10 calls went against State and none against Kentucky. After UK won 81-75 in overtime, State fans protested by throwing plastic bottles onto the court.
The 2010 SEC Tournament finals a month later. Referees did not detect John Wall breaking into the lane early to try to rebound an intentionally missed free throw. Instead of play being stopped because of the violation with seconds remaining, DeMarcus Cousins made a layup at the buzzer, sending the game into overtime. UK won 75-74. Afterward, Stansbury’s frustration boiled over when he said the SEC had an ongoing vested interest in Kentucky’s success. Commissioner Mike Slive fined him $30,000, which would have been tip money if Stansbury had gotten his contractual bonuses for State winning the SEC Tournament, getting an NCAA Tournament bid and winning an NCAA Tournament game.
A double-overtime thriller in 2015 at Texas A&M when Stansbury was an assistant coach for the Aggies. Kentucky preserved an undefeated win-loss record that would remain that way until the Final Four.
Two more overtime thrillers last season. A&M won the regular-season game, thanks in no small part to Isaac Humphries getting a technical foul for throwing the ball to the court in exultation. Then Kentucky won in the SEC Tournament finals.
From 2002 through last season, seven games between Stansbury’s teams and Kentucky went into overtime. Two of the three meetings in an SEC Tournament finals went into overtime.
“We had some wars,” Stansbury said. “When you go back and look at those stats, you can see why I want to make this a game here with Western Kentucky and Kentucky.”
While he may be a fan of sporting drama, Stansbury has a vested interest in wanting Western Kentucky to play Kentucky. Such a game would help raise the profile of the Hilltoppers, which is Stansbury’s overall goal. In a sense, his desire for a UK-Western Kentucky series continues a pattern.
“I took pride in putting our programs together at Mississippi State,” he said. “And there was always one team in mind. And it was Kentucky. ... That was my measuring stick all through those years.”
Hired as Western Kentucky’s new coach this spring, Rick Stansbury made a splashy first impression in the form of a fashion statement. As Chad Bishop of WBKO (the ABC affiliate in Bowling Green) reported at the time, the new coach lamented how WKU students wore shirts promoting other in-state schools.
“My first couple of weeks here, I walked around this campus,” Stansbury said. “I saw way too many kids wearing Kentucky or Louisville shirts. That needs to change. ...
“They want to wear that shirt, they need to transfer. We need kids, students here that have that pride being at Western Kentucky the way it used to be, the way it should be.”
When asked this month about this fashion statement, Stansbury again talked about the change he wants to instill.
“Change the mentality to where we believe we can be as good as anybody in the country,” he said. “We need to get that belief back where we don’t need to take a back seat to anybody.”
Tradition meets energy
Only Kentucky and Kansas have won more conference championships than Western Kentucky. “The stat that I like the best,” WKU Director of Athletics Todd Stewart said.
Western Kentucky also ranks in the all-time top 10 in 20-win seasons (seventh with 43) and winning percentage (ninth at .663).
But those achievements seem part of a different Western Kentucky. The program hasn’t won a regular-season conference championship since 2009. Only once since 1993 has Western Kentucky won more than one NCAA Tournament game.
“We had to hire the person who would get us back to what they’re used to,” Stewart said of WKU fans, “and also somebody who would bring energy to the program.”
Western Kentucky hopes that person is Rick Stansbury.
The Hilltoppers’ average home attendance last season of 3,673 was the program’s lowest since 1998-99. Stewart was happy to say that the school had sold almost 500 new season tickets since hiring Stansbury.
“He’s brought energy to our program,” Stewart said, “and he’s unified our fan base. ... There’s so much more buzz now than there has been.”
That six of Mississippi State’s 10 NCAA Tournament appearances came with Stansbury as coach translates into credibility, Stewart said.
‘Things will happen’
The beginning of the end of Rick Stansbury’s time as Mississippi State coach came in 2010-11 when heralded sophomore Renardo Sidney punched a teammate in the stands in Hawaii.
When asked about that incident, Todd Stewart said, “I looked at the total body of work. Things will happen. You’re dealing with 18- to 22-year-olds. And there will be things that happen in every sport across the country.”
Basketball fans and lovers of sporting theater had to like last week’s announcement that the Champions Classic contract had been extended three years (or through the 2019-20 season). The same four teams — Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, Michigan State — will continue to play in the doubleheaders.
Beginning most recently, here’s how reliable the Champions Classic has been as competitive entertainment since it began in 2011:
▪ 2015: UK 74, Duke 63. As perhaps this kind of early-season game should do, Kentucky got a preview of the season’s over-riding themes. The guards excelled. Tyler Ulis had six assists and no turnovers while playing the entire 40 minutes. Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe combined for 28 points. UK needed the guards to excel when Skal Labissiere had to be yanked from the game before getting eaten alive by Duke’s front line.
▪ 2014: UK 72, Kansas 40. Kentucky was scary good in the most lopsided defeat in Bill Self’s career at Kansas.
▪ 2013: Michigan State 78, UK 74. A monster second half (23 points, nine rebounds) introduced freshman Julius Randle as the player who needed to be Priority One in every opponent’s game plan.
▪ 2012: Duke 75, UK 68. Certainly the best game of Alex Poythress’ career in terms of highlight material (surely every high-flying, one-hand put-back dunk caused pulses to race). But the more intriguing subtext involved how Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski seems to rattle UK Coach John Calipari’s cage.
During a quickie interview as he exited the court at halftime, Calipari commented on Duke’s propensity for taking charges. Maybe not so coincidentally, it’s an effective antidote to a dribble-drive offense.
“They're flopping all over the place,” said Calipari, a smile making his point easier to digest. “In the NBA they'd be suspended."
In response to what Calipari called “a joke,” Krzyzewski suggested that there was a difference between a “flop” and a “charge.” Then he quipped, “And we don’t make any money, so we can’t be fined.”
▪ 2011: UK 75, Kansas 65. After Duke beat Michigan State to make Krzyzewski the winningest coach in college basketball history, UK showed that even a team en route to a national championship needs time to maximize its potential. The Cats won with defense (13 blocks, limiting Kansas to 33.9-percent shooting). The offense had a whopping 19 turnovers.
Tickets to Sunday’s Coach Cal Celebrity Softball Classic will be on sale at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. The game begins at 6 p.m., following a home-run derby at 5:30. Tickets are $5, $10 and $20 and are also available at CoachCal.com. Proceeds from the game will assist Louisiana flood victims. To directly donate to the American Red Cross efforts in Louisiana, fans can text GIVE to 859-955-8173.
Cats and dogs
A person approached the Herald-Leader table at the Woodland Art Fair last weekend. Recognizing a sportswriter that covers UK basketball, the person said the dog he held on a leash was named Ulis.
The person then said he intended to get another dog. When it was suggested he should name the new dog Murray, the man said he just might do that.
To Richie Farmer. He turned 47 on Thursday. ... To UK Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart. He turned 57 on Saturday. ... To Bob Guyette. He turns 63 on Monday. ... To Morakinyo “Mike” Williams. He turns 28 on Monday. ... To Lukasz Obrzut. He turns 34 on Wednesday.