The massive problem with sports in Kentucky? It's elementary, my dear Watson.
We need better team nicknames.
There were 278 high schools that fielded sports teams sanctioned by the Kentucky High School Athletics Association in 2008-09.
A truly distressing number of them went into competition carrying names such as Eagles (17 schools), Wildcats (15) and Panthers (13).
We need more nickname creativity, more Polar Bears (Bracken County), more Pandas (Notre Dame) and more Big Trains (Silver Grove).
We need more nickname singularity, more team names that, when you hear them, you immediately think of one school and one school only.
Give a Kentucky sports fan Tomcats, Briar Jumpers and Redhounds, and in a millisecond they will give you Ashland Blazer, Somerset and Corbin.
You can't say that for any school carrying Tigers (12 schools), Bulldogs (11) or Cardinals (10) into battle.
C'mon, Kentucky, we need to shed the shackles of nickname group-think.
Picking your nickname
Those with the best chance to save us from our Colonels, Cougars and Raiders (nine schools each) are officials opening new high schools.
Yet for a new school to adopt a unique and clever nickname, the proposal often has to survive a maze of committees and community interest groups.
When Cawood (Trojans), Cumberland (Redskins) and Evarts (Wildcats) were consolidating to form the new Harlan County High, "one of the primary issues that came up was settling on a nickname that would be acceptable to all three communities," says Bob Howard, the Harlan County Principal.
Leading up to the school's opening in 2008, it seemed Knights would be the pick. However, Howard says the sentiment among some was that the Knight was too close to the Cawood Trojan.
Then late in the selection process, the local news featured word that wildlife officials were repopulating black bears to Harlan County.
From that, Howard says, came a nickname ground swell.
"One of the problems with Knights, there wasn't anything about it typical to the Appalachian Mountains," Howard said. "Black bears are something that we have in Harlan County. And we wanted to do something completely different than any other school that our people could rally around."
When Harlan County High School opened last fall, it was the only school in Kentucky known as the Black Bears.
Howard says the name has been a hit in the community, though with one drawback.
"Every time something happens to a black bear (and) one gets killed, people call the taxidermist then want to donate the bear to us," says Howard. "We can't be the repository for every taxidermed bear in Harlan County."
In advance of the opening of Cooper High School in 2008, Boone County officials organized a planning committee to deal with the myriad issues involved in opening a public school.
The group "looked at mascots, nicknames of all the surrounding schools," says Cooper Principal Michael Wilson. "And looked statewide at what nicknames were being used."
Ultimately, the committee forwarded several names — Titans, Royals, Jaguars, Cardinals and Bulldogs — for final consideration.
Students who were being redistricted to Cooper were then allowed to vote. More than 50 percent, Wilson says, voted for Jaguars. Given the list they received, that was probably the best they could have done.
When school begins for the newly consolidated Muhlenberg County High School this fall, the school's athletics teams could have been called the Miners.
That was one of the three finalists put forward. In coal-mining heavy Muhlenberg County, that nickname would have said much about the community.
Instead, the students from the old Muhlenberg North and South high schools picked Mustangs for their new school.
"The students chose a name that will be unique to this area," said Matt Perkins, the Muhlenberg County principal.
Three other schools in Kentucky (Moore, North Oldham and Bishop Brossart) use that nickname, but none of them are in Western Kentucky.
The process of picking a new school nickname is getting underway in McCracken County. The three existing county high schools — the Heath Pirates; Lone Oak Purple Flash; Reidland Greyhounds — are slated to merge by the fall of 2012.
McCracken County Superintendent Tim Heller says a committee of 48 people representing teachers, students and parents will tackle issues like the new nickname.
"It's something that you want to get right," Heller said. "You don't want a nickname that has some kind of double meaning or something that your rivals can turn against you."
One thing you'll notice among the new schools is no consideration of nicknames — Rebels, Indians, Redskins — that have long been common in Kentucky but are now considered culturally insensitive by some.
In 2007, the Kentucky State Board of Education adopted a resolution encouraging schools to respect "the worth and dignity of all peoples" in their choices of nicknames and mascots.
There are no longer any Kentucky high schools using Redskins. Seven still use Rebels and four go by Indians.
"You want to make sure you are making people of different cultures comfortable in their community school," said Perkins, the Muhlenberg County principal. "It's a given now that you don't pick some names."
The benefits of singularity
Schools that have strayed from the madding crowd and gone with distinctive nicknames say they reap intangible rewards.
Being the Polar Bears "is something unique to our school," said Bracken County Principal Jenny Ray. "The students in the school like that we're the only ones."
In Louisville, the all-girls Sacred Heart Academy goes by the Valkyries (fierce females from Norse mythology).
School principal Beverly McAuliffe "loves that you can pick up (the newspaper) and see 'Valkyries win' and you don't even have to mention Sacred Heart because the nickname is unique."
Some schools are still thanking the nickname gods for a choice made long ago.
In 1976, Notre Dame Academy's nickname contest came down to Pandas and Colonelettes. To their ever-lasting credit, the school's students rejected the horrid "Colonelettes."
"Thank God," said Kim Gunning, the current Notre Dame athletics director.
'Fixing' Fayette Co.
The drive to revive Kentucky sports with more intriguing nicknames might as well start close to home.
Among Fayette County's eight KHSAA-affiliated high schools, three meet my nickname standards.
When one hears "Defenders," one immediately thinks Bryan Station.
That is singularity.
As a school named after the Marquis de Lafayette — the young French military officer who served under George Washington in the Revolutionary War — the perfect nickname for Lafayette High is the one the school has, Generals.
Sayre Spartans might not be wildly creative, but there is only one school using "Spartans" in Kentucky.
The other five Fayette County high schools need nickname upgrades.
Named for the 19th Century statesman, Henry Clay High School should be the Senators, not the Blue Devils (though Andrew Jackson might disagree).
The real Paul Laurence Dunbar was a poet. So the school that bears his name should be the Poets (or the Fighting Poets if writers are not aggressive enough). Not the generic Bulldogs.
Commodores is far too ponderous a nickname for Tates Creek. Given that a creek is a stream and turtles live in streams, how about the Tates Creek Snapping Turtles?
For Lexington Catholic, Knights isn't horrible, but Crusaders would carry more historical cachet.
Lexington Christian should ditch the vastly over-used Eagles and become the Soldiers — allowing its fans to shout "Onward Christian Soldiers" at games.
C'mon, Kentucky. When it comes to team nicknames, it's time to raise our game.