Before Kentucky played Western Kentucky on Thursday night in the NCAA Tournament, first-year UK president Eli Capilouto shared his thoughts on some of the hot-button issues involving the sometimes uneasy alliance between the athletic and academic worlds.
Question: What role should athletics play on a college campus?
Answer: "One of the reasons I came to Kentucky is, even during a sneak visit on campus, I learned we were a students-first university. That is made evident to me every day I'm there. And we do that in athletics, as well. We have a tremendous culture of compliance and integrity in our athletic department. I have great respect for Dr. (Lee) Todd and Mitch Barnhart for what they've done over the last 10 years. I know it didn't start that way. And I think it's a tremendous foundation upon which I hope to work with our A.D. and coaches to make even better."
Q: What do you think of the perception that you'd placed limits on athletics? For instance, by not embracing the idea of a new home court or a renovated Rupp Arena?
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A: "It's again about putting students first. ... We want to push our graduation rate even higher. The athletic graduation rate improved significantly in these last 10 years. So I do not see a conflict. In fact, I see synergy across athletics, our academic research, health-care enterprise. We all leverage off each other."
Q: UK plans to name a building for one of your predecessors, David Roselle, who became a controversial figure when he insisted on a thorough and legitimate investigation of alleged rules violations by the basketball program. Some people thought the NCAA should have been stonewalled. What do you think of his decision and leadership in time of athletic crisis?
A: "I asked a lot of people about that history, and I heard Dr. Roselle was a strong advocate for our academics on campus. ... I heard some of his challenges were when he took on some elected officials about our budgets. So it wasn't only about athletics. Nothing ever is."
Q: Why have you spoken in opposition of Mayor Jim Gray's proposed Arts, Arena and Entertainment District, going so far as to say you'd view any funding for that project as money taken away from your hopes to upgrade UK classroom buildings and dormitories?
A: "Mayor Gray has an exciting vision for our city. I think he made us all realize design matters. ... I have the same goals of having newer facilities on campus, renovated classrooms (and) residence halls that lend themselves to modern living and learning. We both share a challenge and we speak about it frequently, and that is how to pay for the new arena.
Q: How much conflict is there between your vision for UK and Gray's vision for Lexington?
A: "I hope all of our dreams come true."
Q: How comfortable are you with the so-called "one-and-done" players who attend college one year?
A: "I agree with Coach (John) Calipari. We wish the rules were different. They're not our rules. We can't change those rules. I do know that when those students are on campus, they are held to high academic standards."
Q: How comfortable are you with UK accepting money from the coal industry to fund the Wildcat Coal Lodge?
A: "I'm grateful for the generosity of the people who supported our university. We want to continue to focus on students being our first priority."
Q: So you're comfortable with it?
A: "I'm comfortable with support that benefits our academics, health care and athletic programs."
Q: What donors would make you uncomfortable?
A: "I'm not going to speak about hypotheticals."
Q: You were a lineman for a high school championship football team. How much did you weigh then and how much do you weigh now?
A: "I weighed 210 pounds, and I weigh 165, now."
Q: What benefit did you gain from playing football?
A: "Discipline. Persistence. Perseverance. Those (qualities) are what I took away from athletics. I managed my time during the season better than I did out of the season. So that's the discipline I'm talking about. And I think it taught me never to give up."
Party like it's 1996
UK hopes to mirror its 1996 predecessor: lose one game in the regular season, lose in the SEC Tournament finals and avoid any other losses en route to a national championship.
Memories of 1996 must include the SEC Tournament loss to Mississippi State. In that game, then-UK Coach Rick Pitino famously benched star Antoine Walker. The move led to speculation that Pitino wanted to lose the game to better prepare the team for the NCAA Tournament.
If so, Pitino expended much sweat and coaching energy as part of a ruse. More likely, he wanted to win the game to teach the mercurial Walker a lesson: UK could win without him, especially if he took ill-advised shots as he did that day.
"You said it right there," said Jeff Sheppard, a guard on UK's 1996 championship team. " ... (Pitino) was real big on making a point, no matter what. And that team could win without Antoine. We could win without anybody."
Another player on the 1996 team, Cameron Mills, also scoffed at the notion of Pitino purposefully losing a game.
"Antoine and Coach Pitino butted heads that entire year," Mills said. "It was more an attitude issue."
As for tanking the game, Mills said, "I can't imagine Coach Pitino even tanking an exhibition game. He hates to lose."
Walker, now playing for the Idaho Stampede of the NBA's Developmental League and the subject of a cautionary tale in last week's edition of Sports Illustrated, declined an interview request.
Sheppard noted how UK valued Walker's outsized personality and, uh, healthy self-esteem.
"That's what made Antoine great," Sheppard said. "We needed that competitiveness, and we needed that aggressive mentality. Coach Pitino had to prove it had to be channeled into the team structure."
UK freshman Anthony Davis will be a presence at the Final Four whether the UK team gets there or not.
His picture will remain on the billboard near the Mercedes-Benz Superdome through mid-April. UK paid less than $5,000 to put the Davis photo (the same photo that's part of the poster distributed to fans at a home game) on the billboard for a six-week period beginning in early March.
Credit for the billboard idea goes to Jason Schlafer, an associate A.D. for marketing and licensing. The billboard gets the UK brand more exposure, plus can boost Davis' candidacy for national player of the year.
"Somebody said he was blocking traffic," Schlafer said of the billboard. "Get the pun?"
As a Chicago native, Anthony Davis might seem ready-made to have Michael Jordan as a role model. But with Davis only turning 19 last Sunday, might he be too young to revere Jordan?
"I think kids still want to be like Jordan," he said at the SEC Tournament. "He was an exceptional player. Everybody wants to be like Jordan. Best player in basketball when I was growing up.
"Maybe some of the younger guys growing up right now didn't really see him. They saw Kobe (Bryant) and LeBron (James) and Kevin Durant. And that's all they know. They don't know about Jordan and Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas."
Sportswriter Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer noted how Davis' face lit up when he spoke of Durant as his role model.
"He plays how I play," Davis said. "Go in the post. Shoot the ball. Dribble. He has the same body frame as me. And he gets it done. I love the way he plays. Not afraid of anything and takes on all challenges."
Davis noted how Durant leads the Oklahoma City Thunder. "Always going against the best guy," he said. "Having to make plays. ... That's the mark of a great player."
Walk-on Sam Malone is the subject of an upcoming story on Salon.com, the Web site that covers arts, culture and current events.
Freelance writer Brian Weinberg was in the UK locker room last week in Louisville to interview Malone. Weinberg said he wanted to do a 1,500-word story on a player who normally doesn't receive a lot of media coverage.
Malone said he was progressing well after undergoing a surgical repair of a torn anterior cruciate ligament on Jan. 6.
"The therapist says I'm ahead of schedule," he said of the rehabilitation process. "I'm in way better shape."
Malone said he'd lost 20 pounds. "Hopefully when I get back, that weight off my knees will help," he said. "I've heard that every pound you lose, that's four pounds less stress on your knees."
Trusting in Lunardi
When assessing his team's chances of receiving an NCAA Tournament bid, Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury put his trust in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi.
Yes, State had lost six of eight going into the SEC Tournament. Yes, skeptics of State's defense, chemistry and depth abounded.
But if Lunardi found State better situated than even his last-four-in category, that won Stansbury's faith.
"There's only one guy I pay attention to," the State coach said at the SEC Tournament. "Joe Lunardi has a better feel than anyone."
In making the case for State, Stansbury said, "No question, we're one of the 68 better teams. Did you watch the Kentucky game?
"Are we the best? No. (But) we're darn sure one of the 68 best."
State lost to Georgia in the SEC Tournament first round. Lunardi demoted State to his last-four-in category. Then on Selection Sunday, State did not receive a bid.
Return to sender
Florida Coach Billy Donovan said he would appeal to the SEC office after his team shot two free throws to UK's 20 in the league tournament semifinals last weekend.
Good luck with that.
Free advice: Donovan should address his appeal to "To whom it does not concern."
Meanwhile, skeptics might note that Florida's reliance on three-point shooting translates to fewer free throw attempts.
No doubt, that's true. But here's something to ponder: In two regular-season games, Florida shot 23 free throws to UK's 22.
Belated happy birthday
To Dale Barnstable, captain of the UK team of 1949-50. He turned 87 on March 4.
Barnstable played on four SEC championship teams, won two NCAA championships and was alternate on the 1948 Olympic Team. Before playing for UK, he served in the Army in Europe during World War II.
One of his daughters, Barbara Barnstable Edelman, is an attorney in Lexington. His other daughters, Tricia Barnstable Brown and Cyb Barnstable, donated funds for UK to build a diabetes and obesity research center.
To Pat Riley. He turns 67 on Tuesday. ... To Jerry Hale. He turns 59 on Tuesday. ... To Jimmy Dan Conner. He turns 59 on Tuesday. ... To Sam Bowie. He turned 51 on Saturday. ... To Jim Master. He turned 50 on Friday. ... To Darius Miller. He turns 22 on Wednesday. ... To Patrick Sparks. He turned 29 on Saturday. ... To former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl. He turns 52 today. ... To Troy McKinley. He turns 49 on Wednesday.