Although a walk-on, Dillon Pulliam is a distinctive Kentucky player. Actually, he holds a much more exclusive place in recent UK basketball history than an All-American or a mere NBA lottery pick.
You have to go back more than 20 years to find the last UK player who, like Pulliam, was an engineering major. That would be Todd Svoboda, who played in the 1992-93 season and studied chemical engineering.
So when Kentucky said that classwork would make Pulliam late for a preseason interview session, you knew he had a good excuse. His classes include micro computer organization, algorithm design and analysis, plus design of logic circuits.
“It’s going to be a rough semester,” he said when he arrived for the interview. “So, hopefully I can handle it all. They are classes I enjoy, though. I mean, I have to have them for my major.”
Pulliam’s major is computer engineering. And he plans on adding computer science as a second major. “Since they are so closely related,” he said.
When asked where he hoped his studies would lead, Pulliam said, “One day, I’d want to design a new technology, whether it be a smartphone or maybe the control system on a plane or work for Apple. … I want to design stuff.”
Kentucky is hardly the only college basketball powerhouse that has a scarcity of players who doubled as engineering students. A check with Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Indiana uncovered two:
1. Matt Christensen was a civil engineering major on the Duke teams in 1995-96, plus 2000-02. He was a scholarship player who took a Mormon mission, then took a redshirt year in order to get back into basketball shape.
2. Mitch Lightfoot, a freshman scholarship player for Kansas this coming season, plans to study in KU’s School of Engineering. Officially, he does not have a major because Kansas prefers its students not declare a major until after the sophomore year.
A teacher at Harrison County High School inspired Pulliam to pursue a degree in computer engineering. “Just his passion and his knowledge really helped me and other students,” Pulliam said of Roger Hurst. “Just grow our interest in engineering and math. He really pushed me to pursue those fields. From day one in those classes, I really enjoyed them.”
Hurst, who is in his 22nd year as a teacher at Harrison County High, called Pulliam “one of the reasons you want to stay in teaching.”
As engineers go, Pulliam was a natural. “He liked to tinker,” Hurst said.
Pulliam first attended Transylvania. Basketball coach Brian Lane joked about Pulliam’s intelligence requiring him to bring a dictionary and thesaurus to practice to make sure he made no grammatical mistakes.
After transferring to UK last year, Pulliam developed what he called a “really close” friendship with Skal Labissiere. As friends will do, Labissiere teased Pulliam about his study habits.
“He was always, like, ‘Dillon, quit doing homework’ and ‘stop studying and reading. You need to come over here and hang out,’” Pulliam said.
“And I’d be, ‘I have to do this or I’m going to fail this next class or quiz.’”
Failure would reflect on Pulliam, but also affect Kentucky’s team grade-point average. He made the Southeastern Conference’s academic honor roll last school year.
“Yeah, definitely I feel that’s a way I can help the team is to take care of business in the classroom,” Pulliam said. “But also that’s something that’s really important to me personally.”
An engineering major means lot of textbooks. Make that lots of expensive textbooks. Pulliam said he spent more than $400 on textbooks for this fall semester.
Of course, a less-intense major could drastically reduce the money spent on textbooks and the weight of subject matter.
“Sometimes, I definitely think other majors probably have a little easier course load and schedule and homework,” Pulliam said. “But, like I said, it’s stuff I enjoy doing.”