ALBANY — Perry Wray works about as close to the state of Tennessee as is humanly possible while still being inside the commonwealth of Kentucky.
While manning the counter at the Express Mart on the outskirts of Albany, Wray spends his days staring at a giant sign located just outside the convenience store.
Tennessee Welcomes You
"I've been trying for years to get my boss to let me paint this place half orange and half blue," says Wray, meaning half the colors of the Tennessee Volunteers and half of the Kentucky Wildcats. "For this spot, that would be perfect."
Kentucky sports lore has long been filled with tales of how the towns and counties that line the southern border that the commonwealth shares with Tennessee are filled with split sports loyalties.
Across the years, I've encountered UK fans from such counties, usually football fans, spitting mad that many of their neighbors swear allegiance to the historically far more successful football program to the south rather than to their state school.
Clinton County is actually closer to Knoxville (85 miles) than Lexington (117). So, on a sunny July afternoon, I ventured there to try to take a measure of where the college sports loyalties lie.
Inside the McWhorter Variety Store on the main drag in Albany, the sign out front promoted a Back to School Sale.
Right at the front of the store was a prominent display of college team shirts, caps, even some teddy bears.
No variety in this selection. They were all representing one team — Kentucky.
"You can see what we are," said Alice McWhorter, who has been involved in the family store for 49 years now. "This is a UK town."
(When I go out on these county columns, I can always tell a town that doesn't have a Wal-Mart — It still has a downtown shopping district).
Up the street at the Custom Hair Service (a barber shop), proprietor Danny Groce was cutting the hair of local Methodist minister Ronnie Turner while trying to put percentages on Clinton County's college sports allegiance.
"I'd say we're about 99 percent Kentucky," Groce said.
Really? That high?
"Well, we hate Tennessee," Groce said. "Most everyone in Clinton County wants Tennessee to lose even when they're not playing Kentucky."
At city hall, second-term Albany Mayor Nicky Smith says that he does know some Tennessee Vols fans among his constituents.
"There are a few," Smith says.
"They can't help it," the mayor, a UK fan, says with a laugh.
A day trip to the Clinton County seat yields two quick, non-sports observations.
On a per-capita basis, Albany (population 2,311 in a county of 9,541) has to be the barber shop capital of Kentucky.
"There are six all told right downtown," says Warren Keefer, who developed an affinity for the area by visiting nearby Lake Cumberland and subsequently moved from Tampa to open The Albany Barber Shop.
And, at least based on my day there, it's hard to imagine a more polite town in the commonwealth than Albany.
"It really is amazing, every one in this town waves at you whether they know you or not," Keefer said. "In Tampa, people waved, they were just usually waving with one finger."
One reason Clinton County may not have developed the affinity for the Tennessee Volunteers you hear about in other Kentucky border counties is that it does not have an especially robust football tradition.
The local high school started football, saw its program go dormant in 1984 due to lack of participation (down to 13 players at the end), then re-started the sport three years ago.
"The parents really wanted us to start football back," says Mike Reeves, the Clinton County High School Athletics Director.
It hasn't been an easy ride. The Bulldogs are 1-21 over the past two years. Not surprisingly, this fall they will have a new coach.
Clinton is a basketball county. It has one boys' state tournament trip (1960) in its history. Some say the best player in school history was swingman Bobby Storie. In 1981-82, the 6-foot-4 shooter averaged 27 points and led Clinton County on a 19-game winning streak. Storie went on to become a standout at Transylvania University.
In the 2000s, girls' basketball has been Clinton County's calling card.
In mid-decade, Clinton teams built around the Guffey twins, Amber and Paige, took the Lady Bulldogs to the finals of the All 'A' Classic three straight years (2003-05) and won the small-school state title in '03 and '04.
More impressively for a school with an enrollment of just over 400, Clinton County won the actual 4th Region tournament three times in four years between 2002 and '05.
In 2005, the Lady Bulldogs went to the finals of the Girls Sweet Sixteen. There, they came agonizingly close to an upset of massively favored Lexington Catholic.
Catholic had beaten Clinton by 40 points earlier in the season. In the state championship game, Clinton County actually led by a point inside the final minute before falling 61-56.
Suffice to say, that last minute is still being avidly replayed and rehashed around Albany.
"For a school our size to have a class of kids come along that gives you a chance to play at a state level like that, it's once in a lifetime probably," says David Warriner, who retired this summer as Clinton County principal.
So it's not exactly shocking in a county whose greatest athletics success has come in basketball to find fierce allegiance to the men's college hoops program with the most wins in the history of the sport.
The John Calipari buzz has definitely reached Clinton County.
"That was who I wanted them to hire when they hired the other guy," Smith, the Albany mayor, said in reference to Billy Gillispie. "I'm looking forward to seeing some fast-paced basketball again."
Groce, one of the many Albany barbers, says Kentucky fans in the area love Calipari and will do so into the future. That is, "as long as he wins. If he doesn't, well, that's what happened to Gillispie," Groce said.
Having gone to Clinton County seeking a county in sports conflict between blue and orange, I instead wound up just trying to see if I could find anyone who would confess to rooting for Tennessee.
Back out at the Express Mart where Perry Wray literally spends his work days looking into the state of Tennessee, he allowed that he's always been more of a UK fan in basketball and a UT backer in football.
"But I don't know about that new coach they hired down there," he says of Lane Kiffin. "I'm thinkin' I may root for Kentucky now in football, too."
Downtown in Albany, I did meet a woman wearing a pair of strikingly orange slacks. But she said she didn't even like sports.
Working at her family's Sunoco station, Tara Angila Upchurch is a brave woman.
She did part of her schooling in the state of Tennessee and says she really likes football.
So Upchurch roots for the Tennessee Titans. She roots for the Tennessee Vols. She is not afraid to wear orange around Albany.
"Oh, they give me a hard time," Upchurch said. "They don't like it."
In Clinton County, it seems that having a front-porch view of the state line with Tennessee doesn't produce mixed allegiances. It produces a stark focus on just which side of that invisible barrier one's sports loyalties lie.