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Mark Story: The risk — Here, 'Billy G.!' — in naming your family pet for a UK sports figure

Daniel and Caitlin King posed with their dogs Cal, left, and Joker at their home in Nicholasville. Joker kept his name despite the coach's firing.
Daniel and Caitlin King posed with their dogs Cal, left, and Joker at their home in Nicholasville. Joker kept his name despite the coach's firing. Herald-Leader

Rick Pitino had just coached Kentucky to the 1996 NCAA men's basketball championship. In response, UK fan Tim Perri and his then-girlfriend cut a deal.

"She had fallen in love with some little stray black cats," Perri said. "I said we could get one if she would let me name it 'Pitino.'"

The name even stuck after the couple realized their cat "Pitino" was actually a girl.

Those who track such things say old-school pet names — "Rover," "Fido," "Spot" — are now as passé as pay phones. What's trendy in pet monikers is naming animals for famous people as a means of enhancing one's feeling of connection with a celebrity.

Among a sports fan base as passionate as Kentucky Wildcats backers, there is no shortage of people looking for ways to feel closer to UK sports icons.

Yet for sports fans who name the family pet after someone from their favorite team, there is a unique risk.

Even after Pitino left Kentucky to become Boston Celtics head man following the 1997 season, Perri remained A-OK with having a pet named for the coach who had meant so much to UK basketball fans.

Four years later, however, things took a nasty turn.

In 2001, not long after Pitino had been fired by Boston, the coach became the head man at Louisville. Suddenly, Tim Perri, lifelong Kentucky Wildcats basketball fan, had a pet named for the head coach at UK's archrival.

"I hated it," Perri said.

What do you do when you've named your beloved pet for a Kentucky Wildcats athletics figure — a Pitino, a Billy Gillispie or a Joker Phillips — only to see that person exiled from the Big Blue Nation?

'Billy G.' and 'Joker'

When Billy Gillispie was hired as Kentucky men's hoops coach in 2007, hope and enthusiasm ran high.

Midway's Dave Papp went all in and named his cat, a yellow tabby, "Billy G."

Georgetown's David Thompson caught the wave, too. For his Dachshund puppy, he, too, chose the name "Billy G."

All seemed good until, midway through Gillispie's second season as Kentucky head coach, the UK men's basketball program jumped the rails.

When Kentucky lost eight of its last 11 regular-season games in 2008-09, the approval ratings for Billy G. the coach plunged. Thompson says he began to fear that his poor dog had become traumatized.

"I was afraid he'd come to think his name was 'Billy G. You Idiot!'" Thompson jokes.

A few years later, Lexington's Daniel and Caitlin King would find themselves in the same pickle.

After Joker Phillips, the former UK wide receiver and longtime assistant coach, ascended to the head coaching job at his alma mater before the 2010 football season, the Kings named their new pet Chihuahua "Joker."

Caitlin told Joker the coach about "Joker" the Chihuahua at a UK football women's clinic. "He laughed and said people always named animals after him, never babies," she said.

Alas, Phillips lasted only three years as head coach at UK, losing 24 of his final 34 games.

So last November, as Kentucky's season-ending 37-17 loss to Tennessee played out, Daniel King sat watching the game on TV with the dog "Joker" in his lap.

Some two weeks earlier, UK had announced that Phillips' tenure as Cats head football coach would end when the 2012 season did. In the middle of that final Tennessee game, King's phone rang.

"A buddy of mine calls and says 'Well, after today, is Joker going to change his name?'" King said. "I'm like, 'Hey, he's just getting fired. It's not like he's going into the witness protection program.'"

Then King realized his friend was asking not about the soon-to-be-ex-UK coach, but about the name of the dog.

"I said, you know, that's a real good question," said King.

The 'Pitino' quandary

After the real Rick Pitino became a Louisville Cardinal, Kentucky fan Perri mulled what to do about the name of his cat, "Pitino."

Perri wound up living in Boone, N.C., so his sports hatred burns hotter for North Carolina and Duke than for U of L. So even though the human Pitino became a Card, the cat 'Pitino' kept her name.

With time, Perri says he even got a perverse kick out of having a pet named for the coach of his team's archrival.

Across the years, when Perri would hear the name "Pitino," he stopped thinking about the coach at all. "If somebody said 'Rick Pitino,' I would think of the coach," he said. "If someone just said 'Pitino,' to me, 'Pitino' was my cat."

This May, after Rick Pitino had just won his second NCAA title, this time with Louisville, "Pitino" the cat passed away.

"She was born months after he won his first championship, and she died months after he won his second," Perri says, his voice breaking. "'Pitino' was a great cat."

Letting 'Billy G.' go

After Joker Phillips the coach got the ax, "Joker" the dog did not get a new name.

"We still love Joker Phillips, even if it didn't work out for him as our head coach," Caitlin King explains.

Once Billy Gillispie received the pink slip after the sour 2008-09 Kentucky basketball season, the decision on what to do with pets named "Billy G." proved vexing. Few UK fans wanted a daily reminder around their house of Gillispie's ill-fated two-year stint as top Cat.

In Midway, Papp decided that his cat would lose the 'G.' from its name and be known simply as "Billy."

"Nothing personal," Papp said. "I just thought it would be more appropriate to drop the 'G' after (UK) parted ways with Mr. Gillispie."

In December of 2009, Thompson reached the same conclusion regarding his dog "Billy G." that UK had already reached with its coach Billy G.

He let him go.

"I was on the road a lot for my job and I just didn't think 'Billy G.' was getting the attention he needed," said Thompson, the executive director of the Kentucky Press Association. "I'd heard a neighbor was looking for a Dachshund to give his daughter as a Christmas present, so I gave 'Billy G.' to them."

"Billy G." was renamed "Tater" by the dog's new owners.

Thompson does find one consolation after his sports-pet-name-that-backfired experience.

"I often think," he says, "at least my 'Billy G.' lasted longer than UK's Billy G."

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