The 2015 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sportsman of the Year voting produced history. American Pharoah’s resounding triumph made him the first equine athlete to win the statewide media election in the 35-year history of the award.
Reaction has been interesting. Some have expressed philosophical objections to a horse winning the Sportsman award over humans.
While I respect those views, I do not share them. In the context we are using the term, the definition of a sportsman is “one who exhibits qualities highly regarded in sport.” The Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic champion electrified his sport — and is one of the sweetest-natured creatures walking the planet.
Lexington-born American Pharoah is every bit a worthy Kentucky Sportsman of the Year.
Now ... who will be Pharoah’s successor?
Eleven months out, strictly for the fun of it, here are 10 possibilities to be the 2016 Kentucky Sportsman of the Year.
10. Mark Stoops. Every year, I project the Kentucky football coach to be a strong contender for Sportsman of the Year — if he leads UK to a turnaround season. In three years, that has yet to happen. But if UK were to have a winning season in 2016 and win a bowl game, Stoops could be a strong Sportsman contender.
9. Danny Trevathan. In 1987, Morehead State product Phil Simms was elected Kentucky Sportsman of the Year yet played in only one football game that calendar year. The one game was the Super Bowl, and the New York Giants quarterback was the game’s MVP.
Next Sunday, ex-Kentucky Wildcats star Danny Trevathan will play linebacker for the Denver Broncos against the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. Obviously, it’s easier for a quarterback such as Simms to create a signature moment in America’s premier sporting event than it is for a defender. But what if Trevathan, Denver’s leading tackler, makes the game-deciding play? That could make him 2016’s Sportsman.
8. Dan McDonnell. The best finish in Sportsman voting for the Louisville Cardinals baseball coach was seventh in 2007. In 2016, McDonnell’s Cardinals are ranked second in the nation in the preseason by Baseball America. If U of L were to win the College World Series, McDonnell would be a prime contender.
7. Makayla Epps. Sixth in Sportsman voting in 2013 after leading Marion County to an undefeated state championship, the UK women’s basketball star is well-known across the commonwealth. If UK Hoops were to make a deep NCAA Tournament run (not looking as likely in January as it did in December), it could propel Epps into Sportsman contention.
6. Teddy Bridgewater and/or Randall Cobb. Bridgewater, the former Louisville quarterback now starting for the Minnesota Vikings, and Cobb, the former Kentucky wide receiver who now starts for Green Bay, share much in common. They are both popular in this state and both are in high-visibility NFL spots. If either has a signature season in 2016, they could claim the Sportsman of the Year honor that just eluded each in college (Bridgewater third in 2013; Cobb second in 2010).
5. Whitney Creech. The high-scoring Jenkins High School girls’ basketball star will, barring something unexpected, soon become the all-time leading scorer, girls or boys, in the history of Kentucky high school basketball. Given that Creech finished 15th in 2015 Sportsman of the Year voting, she could be set up for a run at the top in 2016.
4. John Calipari. The Kentucky men’s basketball coach was the 2009 Kentucky Sportsman of the year, and has been second three times and third twice in the years since. Cal is always in the Sportman mix, but UK will likely have to make it back to the Final Four at least to give him a shot at his second victory.
3. Tyler Ulis. There’s been a UK men’s hoops player in the Top 10 of Sportsman voting six times in the past seven years, so the best player on the Kentucky Wildcats always is a contender. That is especially true of a player as good and as charismatic as Ulis.
2. Lamar Jackson. The Louisville Cardinals quarterback ended his true freshman season in 2015 with a roar, turning in stellar performances in U of L’s comeback victory over Kentucky and the Cards’ upset of Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. If Jackson makes the expected progression as a sophomore, he could follow Stefan LeFors (2004) and become the second U of L QB voted Kentucky Sportsman of the Year.
1. An Olympics athlete. In a summer Olympics year, athletes from sports outside football and basketball have greater visibility.
If they make it to Rio de Janerio and then do something memorable, ex-Kentucky hurdles star Kendra Harrison (seventh in 2015 Sportsman voting), Louisville swim star Kelsi Worrell (10th) and ex-Paul Laurence Dunbar fencing standout Lee Kiefer are three who could parlay Olympics glory into the 2016 Kentucky Sportsman of the Year award.