Mark Story

Picking Kentucky's sports Mount Rushmore

Picking a Mount Rushmore of (fill in the sports topic) has long been a staple of talk radio shows.

However, ESPN recently took the concept to a whole new level, running surveys on its Web site that allowed people to vote for a Sports Mount Rushmore for all 50 states.

Which compelled me to start thinking about Kentucky. What four sports figures with significant ties to our state would most represent the athletic history of the commonwealth?

Two of the four are as obvious as the rising sun.

A three-time world heavyweight boxing champion (when that still meant something) and symbol of the culturally turbulent 1960s, you have to have Muhammad Ali on Kentucky's Sports Mount Rushmore.

The other mortal lock won four NCAA basketball championships and an NIT (when that still meant something) and is the person most responsible for making college basketball a Kentucky statewide obsession.

You have to have Adolph Rupp.

The other two choices are far less apparent.

Given its unique identification with our state, I wanted a horse racing figure.

I considered jockeys like Eddie Arcaro or Pat Day, but I kept coming back to the fact that the horses supply most of the athleticism.

Next, I thought about a trainer (like legendary Calumet Farm conditioner Ben Jones) or a breeder, but not much sizzle there.

So I decided to pick a horse.

Most consider the three most significant Thoroughbred racehorses in North American history to be Man o' War, Citation and Secretariat.

Unlike Man o' War, Citation ran in and won the Kentucky Derby. Unlike Secretariat (Virginia), Citation was born in Kentucky (Calumet Farm).

The 1948 Triple Crown winner was Calumet's signature horse at the time when the Lexington horse farm was at the pinnacle of its prestige (between 1941 and '58, bred and owned eight Kentucky Derby winners).

So along with Ali and Rupp, we're putting a horse's head — Citation's — on our Kentucky Sports Mount Rushmore.

One to go.

NASCAR enthusiast that I am, I wanted to pick Darrell Waltrip. But the Owensboro product was living in Tennessee, not Kentucky, when he won his three championships of what is now the Sprint Cup series.

Dodgers fan that I am, I really, really wanted to pick Pee Wee Reese.

The Hall of Fame shortstop from the Boys of Summer-era Brooklyn Dodgers not only was a baseball icon when that sport really was the national pastime. His friendship with the trail-blazing Jackie Robinson became a symbol of racial conciliation in a country that needed all of those it could find.

But Pee Wee finished fifth on my list.

Even with our state's basketball reputation, I wanted a football presence.

But the most successful University of Kentucky coach of all time, Bear Bryant, is far more identified with another state.

Paul Hornung, the only native Kentuckian to win a Heisman Trophy (Notre Dame) and our state's most accomplished pro star (Green Bay), achieved the preponderance of his fame outside our state.

Former University of Louisville quarterback Johnny Unitas did fairly well after his college career. However, Johnny U. was not a native Kentuckian.

Having been an All-America player at UK, won a national championship as a coach at Miami, then making the Louisville football program a bona fide major-college operation, Howard Schnellenberger merited strong consideration.

Yet I finally decided that our football people just hadn't had the impact inside Kentucky of the college basketball luminaries.

I considered a basketball player. In my opinion, Wes Unseld is the most accomplished basketball player (high school, college and pros) ever produced in our state.

The list of great players who have worn UK blue is too long to list. U of L and Western Kentucky have their own distinguished lists.

Coaches like Ed Diddle, Denny Crum, Joe B. Hall and Tubby Smith had our state's college basketball teams consistently among the nation's elite.

Yet the figure I finally decided upon holds a genuinely unique place in Kentucky sports history.

At a time of one of the lowest ebbs in the rich history of UK basketball, he came to Lexington and presided over an epic rebuilding effort.

He led Kentucky from the depths of NCAA probation to its modern basketball golden age (and a national championship and three Final Four trips).

After a short time out of our state, he came back to the commonwealth on the other side of our state's basketball dividing line as head coach at Louisville.

Though he hasn't yet been as successful at U of L as UK, in 2005 he took the Cardinals to their first Final Four trip in 19 years.

My fourth member of Kentucky's Sports Mount Rushmore is Rick Pitino.

I deliberately chose my four before I looked at the ESPN selections for Kentucky.

Turns out, theirs and mine were surprisingly similar. Ali and Rupp were givens, but they, too, had Pitino and a horse.

Where I had Citation, they had Secretariat.

What about you?

If you have alternative foursomes for your Kentucky Sports Mount Rushmore, e-mail me at the address below. I'll put select submissions on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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