“Fight Ye Panthers for Ol Wesleyan”
Only a few memories remain from that night fifty years ago. What once was a detailed video I could play over and over in my mind has diminished to a few fading mental snapshots. Today, I remember only bits and pieces of being in Roberts Stadium on that night in March of 1968 to watch my beloved Kentucky Wesleyan College Panthers play for the national championship against Indiana State. Along with my dad and brother, we watched as KWC came back from a huge early deficit to win their second national title in three years. They would repeat as champions the following year in 1969 and over the next several decades be crowned champions five more times.
Kentucky Wesleyan basketball was one of the key connectors between my father and I (with Owensboro High School athletics being the other) and it helped bridge a communication divide between the two of us that we never overcame. It gave us a common interest and provided him with a vehicle to be a dad in a way he had never learned from his father, who left him as a little boy to be raised by a grandmother. We sat together and watched hundreds of games from the same wooden bleacher seats in a corner section of the Owensboro Sportscenter and almost always went home winners. For us, Kentucky Wesleyan basketball was more than a game – it was celebration for our lives.
In March of 1987 Kentucky Wesleyan won their fifth national championship and I was lucky enough to be present in Springfield, Massachusetts to see that game and celebrate with the team and other KWC fans. I regret my dad was not with me. The following day I flew home and my dad and I joined a few hundred others on the KWC campus to greet the team as they arrived by bus. As the team mingled with the fans, John Worth, a star guard on that team, walked over to my dad and gave him a huge embrace. My dad cried. It would mark one of the final truly happy moments in my father’s life. A few months later we would learn that my brother had passed away suddenly in Frankfort and my dad never recovered. The heartbreak of losing his oldest son seemed to trigger multiple health problems and soon after resulted in him having to be placed in a nursing home. He passed away in November 1988.
I share those stories today because I wanted to express the important role Kentucky Wesleyan basketball has played in my life. It has been far more than merely a small college basketball team. It had an impact on the way I lived and the way I learned to make sense of my world. During a time as a child when my home life was somewhat unstable, Kentucky Wesleyan basketball gave me a place of comfort. Those winning teams and star players opened up for me the ability to imagine myself as someone else and helped me survive the painful challenges of growing up. Hour after hour I would escape to my backyard and play basketball while dreaming of being Dallas Thornton or John Duncan or any of a number of Wesleyan stars and allow my mind to shut out the confusion of my young world. I’m not sure how or if I could have survived without it.
The storied past of Kentucky Wesleyan basketball and the importance it has been in my life, is now shadowed by the harsh reality that KWC basketball is in trouble. The difficult subject no one is willing to write about in the local print media or admit publicly is that Kentucky Wesleyan basketball is at a serious crossroads in which, in my opinion, it may survive and thrive or perhaps be diminished to an unrecognizable level. I am saddened by the condition of the program and concerned for its future. Whether or not Kentucky Wesleyan basketball will ever regain its prominence as a Division II power remains to be seen and my opinions expressed here are just that – my opinions. I come at this as a layman of sorts, a fan, a life-long citizen of Owensboro who has grown up with this program – not as a basketball expert. I am also a proud 1984 graduate of Kentucky Wesleyan and was a member of the “Yell Leader” squads in the early 80’s. Admittedly, I have very little insight into the inner workings of the program or the state of the college in general and my opinions may be so far off base that I risk embarrassing myself. But that is a risk I am willing to take as I jump into the deep waters of this subject.
It is not necessary to rehash the issues that fell upon the program following the incredibly successful Ray Harper years. Without question, the program has struggled to recover from those penalties and reputation damages that were a result of poor management and inadequate program oversight. Since that downfall over a decade ago, Kentucky Wesleyan has had limited success and only a handful of NCAA tournament wins. The measuring stick of NCAA wins that KWC has long been known for and of which they have led the Division II world, now seems alarmingly unattainable. Fans familiar with Kentucky Wesleyan have been spoiled to their winning history and have their own history of abandoning a team that does not compete for championships. In the Owensboro basketball world, failure is simply not an option. I am offering five ideas or comments that I believe may help or, at least start a discussion, in regards to the Kentucky Wesleyan basketball program. Again, I admit not being an expert, these are just my opinions born out of being a life-long follower and fan.
1) The Need for Local Talent. History can teach us an important lesson here. In the mid 1970’s Kentucky Wesleyan basketball fell on some hard times and just a few years removed from their 1973 championship, fans turned their backs on the program. That all changed in the spring of 1979 when the program turned to a new head coach and master promoter, Mike Polio. Polio convinced Owensboro to come back to the Sportscenter and used every promotional method and gimmick available to make that happen. But, perhaps the greatest lesson learned from the Polio era was in recruiting local talent. When Owensboro High School stars Rod Drake and Dwight Higgs signed on to help rebuild the Panther program, everything changed. Fans returned to not only watch the new recruits and this new promoter/coach, but to support local kids. Ray Harper and Todd Lee both brought in some local talent but had to mainly rely upon junior college and other college transfers to build their teams. One would have to wonder if taking a chance on local talent that will be around for a few years would be more beneficial than the one and two-year transfers. To be fair, local talent may have been lacking in recent years. However, history has proven that taking chances on local kids can, over time, not only fill a team’s roster but be valuable asset both on the floor and in the stands.
2) What Happened to Four-Year Players? If one looks back on all the great Kentucky Wesleyan teams, you will find that all of them had a number of contributing four-year players. I have to question why KWC has begun relying almost entirely on transfers – many of whom are single season players. It is difficult, if not impossible, for fans to get to know and embrace teams with such transient rosters. One of the great joys of college basketball is watching a team develop and mature over time. The “quick-fix” method of building winning teams is the trend in colleges at all levels. I just don’t think it is good for the fans and I’m not sure it really works over the long-term for a program – especially smaller schools like KWC. A healthy blend of four-year players and one or two year transfers seems to be a more stable model for building a program and maintaining success. Fans will be far more forgiving of the struggles of a young team with young players than a struggling team made up of one and two year transfers. I would love to see KWC recruit more high school seniors.
3) How to Compete Against BBN? In recent years the growth in popularity for University of Kentucky basketball has been remarkable. UK fans have now become “Big Blue Nation” and coverage and interest in UK has swallowed up local sports. Throughout the history of Kentucky Wesleyan basketball there has been a healthy balance of fans willing to support both UK and KWC. That seems to have changed in recent years. It is understandable that Owensboro basketball fans will be drawn to the Big Blue. UK’s basketball success has been second to none. But isn’t there room for both? Our local paper, social media, television and other media outlets are inundated with news from UK while, often, giving second-rate coverage for local sports including Kentucky Wesleyan basketball. I have even noticed many KWC home games with limited coverage by our newspaper and no game pictures – something that once never happened. I get it! Newspaper businesses have to sell newspapers and University of Kentucky basketball is the cash cow. But that has hurt the exposure and publicity of local sports and, in particular, Kentucky Wesleyan, who is desperate for fans and building local interest.
I challenge anyone to go to our public library and look at copies of our local newspaper from forty and fifty years ago. In those days the local paper printed full stories and multiple pictures of KWC games including the day of the game previews. Some may also remember a daily feature at the start of each season called “Panther Profile” – where individual players would be introduced with a picture and a short bio. I mention this to point out that at the same time UK was winning and competing for national championships year in and year out and the newspaper managed to cover both. It can be done.
4) Need for the Right Leadership. This past season KWC basketball was forced to endure the difficult transition of one coach suddenly resigning mid-season and replaced by an assistant. From all I understand the assistant coach (Jason Mays) did a fantastic job of playing the remainder of the schedule having to endure that difficult change, player injuries and lack of talent. Jason Mays could very well be the best person for the job. I really have no idea. However, I hope and fully expect that the KWC administration will vet out every possibility of coaches and explore every option before making a decision. It is my read that is exactly what is going on.
I don’t know who is the best person for this job. I just feel in my heart that this hire is crucial to the program’s future. I’m not sure KWC can afford to get this one wrong. That person will be required to win basketball games and to do that they have to recruit talent. They also need to sell the community on this program all over again. I know Owensboro and it’s fans and do believe that winning will bring people back into the Sportscenter – maybe. The basketball landscape is so different from twenty years ago that I am not sure Kentucky Wesleyan will ever see a sold out Sportscenter again. Twenty-four hour sports programming and finger-tip access to every game and play in the world has changed live sporting event attendance forever. But, I still believe that in a town of fifty-thousand, KWC should be able to draw at least three thousand for every home game and, who knows, maybe a sell out every now and then. I look at Bellarmine University and remember they brought in Scotty Davenport, an older, experienced coach and have done remarkably well under his leadership. On paper, he may not have looked like the right candidate. But his success is undeniable. There are interesting possibilities out there that I hope KWC is exploring. Young coaches, older and experienced coaches, people with ties to KWC and perhaps former KWC or UK players should all be considered.
5) Re-Think the G-MAC Conference. When KWC lost rivals such as Southern Indiana, Lewis and Bellarmine, it lost fans. That is undeniable. I understand the reason for organizing the new G-MAC conference was monetary and that decision may very well have been the best at the time. One of the reasons given initially was the problem with excessive travel that the GLVC caused. However, teams are now traveling to West Virginia, northern Ohio and Michigan. I fail to see the benefit. And, as a fan – it took away a lot of history that will never be replaced. KWC fans have very little connection with the teams competing in the G-MAC and although that history will build over time – I’m concerned that the fan connection to the new conference will never rise to the level that existed with the Great Lakes Valley Conference, of which KWC was a charter member.
Leaving the GLVC was a huge mistake. In the years since leaving that conference, I’m not sure KWC has won a single game against a GLVC school in head to head competition. It would seem that KWC has “played down” to the level of competition in the G-MAC conference. They’re lack of success in the NCAA since joining this new league would bear that out. The GLVC presented a brutal challenge for basketball teams but was the best possible preparation for the national tournament. Kentucky Wesleyan was successful in the NCAA tournament primarily because they withstood the challenge of playing really good teams in the GLVC. I would rethink the decision to be part of the G-MAC and would like KWC to explore rejoining the GLVC.
I love Kentucky Wesleyan College and KWC basketball. It has shaped who I am and carried me through good and bad times in my life. Listening to Joel Utley describe games through the years has brought me countless joy and I can’t imagine going through those cold, difficult winters without his voice in my ear. Kentucky Wesleyan basketball made me feel like a champion. Throughout my life I have celebrated all their victories and at times cried when they lost. I want to never see that come to an end. These five ideas are certainly not the entire answer to the challenge facing Kentucky Wesleyan basketball. Life for small colleges and their athletics is a tenuous business. The fact that KWC has been able to maintain its level of excellence is a testament to some dedicated individuals who through the years have worked to see that tradition continue. It is my hope that the difficult crossroads awaiting this beloved program will not end tragically at a dead-end.
Let’s Go Panthers! “Til every foe in vanquished”