UK Men's Basketball

Mark Story: Richie Farmer's fall elicits no sympathy but much sadness

The “Unforgettables” are four players who led Kentucky out of probation in the early 1990s. From left, Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, Sean Woods and John Pelphrey.
The “Unforgettables” are four players who led Kentucky out of probation in the early 1990s. From left, Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, Sean Woods and John Pelphrey. Lexington Herald-Leader

If the U.S. government can prove that Richie Farmer misused property and more than $450,000 in funds during his tenure as Kentucky agriculture commissioner, then one of our state's all-time basketball icons is worthy of no sympathy.

If the allegations are true, Farmer deserves to lie in the bed of his own making.

Yet the not-unexpected news Monday that a federal grand jury had indicted Farmer on five counts of alleged financial malfeasance from his time (2003-11) as the elected leader of the Kentucky agriculture department left me with one overriding emotion: sadness.

For those of us who have followed basketball in Kentucky since the 1980s, Richie Farmer has been a part of our lives for almost three full decades.

Most first noticed the little guard when he was a freshman in high school leading Clay County to a runner-up finish in the 1985 Sweet Sixteen. Even back then, Farmer always looked like he was sporting two days growth of beard.

Two years later, Farmer took Coach Bobby Keith and Clay County to the state championship, beating Ballard and Allan Houston to do it. In the sports history of the commonwealth it was a signature moment, the first boys' hoops crown claimed by a school from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky since 1956.

The following season, Farmer and Clay were back in the state finals for a rematch with Ballard. This time the Louisville school took the trophy, yet the 5-foot-10 Farmer stole the show by rifling in 51 points. To this day, it's the best individual performance in a state tournament game I've ever seen.

By that point, Farmer was a figure of statewide celebrity, especially popular in the commonwealth's small towns and in his native Eastern Kentucky. The state's sports media elected him the 1988 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sportsman of the Year, the first high school athlete ever to win the award.

When a reluctant University of Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton seemed determined not to offer Farmer a Wildcats scholarship, there was a near fan mutiny until Sutton relented.

At UK, Farmer was never a star, but he did become a quality player, a starter. He was one of the loyal eight players who stuck with Kentucky and its new coach, Rick Pitino, after the Sutton era NCAA scandal that saddled the Kentucky program with a crushing probation in 1989.

It became a running gag that Farmer with his Southeast Kentucky twang and Pitino with his heavy New York accent needed a translator to communicate.

When Christian Laettner's famous buzzer beater eliminated Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament epic with Duke, Farmer collapsed onto the court, crushed, his Wildcats career over.

Days later a grateful UK hung jerseys in the Rupp Arena rafters to honor Farmer and his fellow Kentucky seniors Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey and Sean Woods — the quartet known in Wildcats lore as The Unforgettables.

The general consensus back then was that Farmer, an intensely beloved player with a unique tie to one region of the state, could spend the rest of his life making a good living simply by "being Richie Farmer."

For a time, his entry into statewide politics seemed to confirm that. In 2003, Farmer beat Democrat Alice Baesler by over 100,000 votes to win the agriculture commissioner's post. Four years later, against a weak Democratic foe, Farmer was the top vote getter in the entire 2007 state elections, pulling a whopping 64 percent to earn a second term.

In those heady days, talk of Farmer as a future governor didn't seem all that farfetched.

Instead, over the last six years, we've watched Farmer's life disintegrate.

His decision to run for lieutenant governor in 2011 on a ticket with then-Senate President David Williams brought a heightened scrutiny to Farmer's tenure atop the ag department. What was revealed has not been pretty.

First came media reports that suggested, in a time of lean state budgets and high unemployment, Farmer was living high off the hog at the expense of Kentucky's taxpayers. Amidst mountains of bad publicity, Williams and Farmer got crushed in the election by the ticket of incumbent Governor Steve Beshear.

Eventually, there were scathing audits by state officials alleging financial mismanagement in the agriculture department under Farmer's watch. Along the way, Farmer's marriage crumbled, he got divorced and his Frankfort home went into foreclosure.

On Monday, came a federal indictment with five charges, each of which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

If he's found guilty, Farmer deserves no special treatment. If you are angry about alleged misuse of public funds for a politician's personal use, I'm with you.

Yet on the worst day in what has been a long stretch of bad days for Farmer, I also couldn't help but remember the basketball player he used to be and the unique connection so many Kentuckians felt with him.

It's sad, Richie Farmer's fall from grace, just really, really sad.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader