Mark Story

The enduring gift that C.M. Newton left The Unforgettables

On April 7, 1992, University of Kentucky Athletics Director C.M. Newton surprised UK's senior basketball players, from left, Sean Woods,  Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus and John Pelphrey by retiring their jerseys in Rupp Arena.
On April 7, 1992, University of Kentucky Athletics Director C.M. Newton surprised UK's senior basketball players, from left, Sean Woods, Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus and John Pelphrey by retiring their jerseys in Rupp Arena. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

As a rule, when university officials act out of emotion in renaming buildings or retiring jerseys, it is a mistake. Such consequential honors are generally best awarded only after the judgment of history has been rendered.

Yet, to every rule, there are exceptions.

On April 7, 1992, only 10 days after Duke's Christian Laettner had ended the college basketball careers of the Kentucky senior class known as The Unforgettables with his 1992 NCAA Tournament buzzer-beater, then-University of Kentucky Athletics Director C.M. Newton acted from emotion.

At the end of a postseason awards ceremony in Rupp Arena, Newton shocked Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey and Sean Woods by asking them to turn around and look to the rafters where their retired jerseys were being unveiled.

C.M. Newton retiring The Unforgettables' jerseys.JPG
In April, 1992, then-University of Kentucky Athletic Director C.M. Newton announced that the four seniors on the UK basketball team, Sean Woods, Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus and John Pelphrey, would have their jersey's retired during a ceremony in Rupp Arena. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

"I remember standing on the floor that night listening to Coach Newton and I thought he was going to bring Coach (Rick) Pitino back up to the (microphone)," Pelphrey recalled Wednesday. "But then, he started using the words they used when they retired jerseys. I remember telling Deron, 'Turn around, I think they are about to retire our jerseys.' We were stunned."

Since news broke Monday that Newton, 88, had died from natural causes, I've thought about the meaning of the gesture that the ex-Transylvania, Alabama and Vanderbilt hoops coach made for The Unforgettables — the four seniors who stuck with UK basketball through a debilitating scandal and a crippling NCAA probation and launched a return to glory.

Newton's recognition of The Unforgettables carried an extra poignancy because three of the four had turned down his recruiting pitch when he was the hoops head man at Vandy.

In the eight seasons (1981-89) Newton coached at Vanderbilt, his recruiting calling card was wooing to Nashville Kentucky high school products who were not offered scholarships by UK.

Cawood's Phil Cox (1,724 career points), Marshall County's Barry Goheen (1,509), Fort Thomas Highlands' Scott Draud (1,466), North Hardin's Brett Burrow (1,149), Lexington Catholic's Frank Kornet (938) and Pleasure Ridge Park's Derrick Wilcox (908) were among the Kentuckians who thrived for Newton at Vandy.

C.M. worked diligently to add Farmer (Clay County), Feldhaus (Mason County) and Pelphrey (Paintsville) to that list.

Herald-Leader sports writers John Clay, Jerry Tipton and Mark Story all offer their thoughts on the former UK athletic director C. M. Newton.

C.M. Newton's major career milestones including his years on the Kentucky Basketball team, as a coach at other schools and as UK athletics director.

When Kentucky Coach Eddie Sutton tardily offered Farmer a scholarship offer after his senior season (1987-88), the Clay County star did not initially accept. Farmer had promised Newton he would first make a recruiting visit to Nashville.

Feldhaus said Tuesday that "one of the toughest things I ever did in my life was tell C.M. Newton I was not coming to Vanderbilt. Nobody recruited me harder than he did."

Pelphrey, Kentucky's 1987 Mr. Basketball, recalled that Newton was scheduled to speak at that year's Paintsville basketball banquet. When UK made a late entry into Pelphrey's recruitment, Vanderbilt's chance to sign the lifelong Wildcats' fan evaporated and Newton canceled his appearance at the Tigers banquet.

"But the way it turned out," Pelphrey said, "he joined us at Kentucky."

With Sutton's UK program engulfed in a major cheating scandal in 1988-89, Newton gave up the Vandy coaching job to return to his alma mater as AD.

Eventually, then-Kentucky President David P. Roselle was also able to convince the youthful New York Knicks coach, Rick Pitino, to lead the effort to restore Wildcats basketball.

When Pitino arrived in 1989-90, the best players from Kentucky's 13-19 team in Sutton's final year had transferred. There were only eight scholarship players still left.

The Unforgettables smiling.JPG
University of Kentucky basketball players Sean Woods, left, Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus and John Pelphrey in Rupp Arena on the night, April 7, 1992, when their jerseys were retired in a surprise announcement by then-UK AD C.M. Newton. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

UK faced a two-year postseason ban as a result of NCAA sanctions.

People looked at the wreckage said it could take a decade for UK basketball to recover.

Instead, boosted by Pitino's recruitment of a genuine star in New York City product Jamal Mashburn for 1990-91, the foursome that became unforgettable willed UK to seasons of 14, 22 and 29 victories.

By stabilizing UK basketball in a time of program peril, the class of Pelphrey (1,257 UK points), Feldhaus (1,232), Farmer (898) and Woods (794, 482 assists) earned a place in the lore of Kentucky basketball that is greater than their individual statistical profiles.

When Newton decided that No. 32 (Farmer), No. 12 (Feldhaus), No. 34 (Pelphrey) and No. 11 (Woods) would go into the Rupp rafters, he recognized that.

He also gave the quartet the happy ending that Laettner and Duke's 104-103 overtime victory in the East Region finals had denied them.

It is a gift that endures.

"Every time I am in Rupp, I look up to see that my jersey is still hanging there," Feldhaus says. "And, every time, I can't believe it is there."

Mark Story: 859-231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory