CRAWFORD | My sports people of the year for 2015
WDRB sports columnist Eric Crawford picks his Kentucky sports people of the year for 2015.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — I’m not really sure how I define this particular distinction. I just know it when I see it.
A sports person of the year is someone who moved the public needle in sports in the preceding year, but not just via controversy. In general, it is someone who not only was a focal point of the sports world, but reached beyond that to resonate with the general public, too.
There also are people who likely are on this list by default every year. John Calipari dominates news cycles like no other figure in Kentucky. Rick Pitino is the same. So to me, it should take something extraordinary for one of them to crash this list, and probably something beyond their sports exploits.
Anyway, it’s my list. It doesn’t represent the opinions of WDRB. There’s no award or plaque. Just bragging rights, I suppose. Though I can’t imagine anyone bragging about it.
It’s not a long list. But I think you’d have a hard time arguing that any of these entries should NOT be here, once you read my reasoning. I’m just going to list them in alphabetical order, and explain their distinction in 2015.
1. AMERICAN PHAROAH and trainer BOB BAFFERT. Sports Illustrated, it seems, couldn’t bring itself to make American Pharoah its “sportsman” of the year. He is, after all, an animal. In Kentucky, we have no such hang-up. Pharoah may not be able to give a single interview, but he is not without personality. If you were there outside his barn on the morning after the Kentucky Derby and saw him nose up to people clicking photos on their phones, you’d believe it. Or if you stood behind him the morning after he won the Triple Crown and watched him stand between trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza, just taking it all in, you’d know what I’m talking about. Some people (or horses) wind up here because of excellence, some because of personality, many for both. Of course he’s not a person. But don’t tell me he didn’t have personality! He hung out with Julia Roberts and got a kiss from Kate Upton. American Pharoah had game this year, on the track and off.
When it comes to spokesmen, trainers often set the narratives for their horses. American Pharoah couldn’t have had a better handler in this regard than Bob Baffert. He understood the game from the beginning with this colt. He didn’t build a wall around him. He shared him with the public from the day he set foot in Kentucky. But more than that, Baffert shared himself. He didn’t say yes to every media request, but he said yes to as many as he could. He was candid, emotional and thoughtful in his comments. He was humbled by the Triple Crown experience. He didn’t have to be. American Pharoah’s Triple Crown would’ve been a milestone moment for many inside and outside of the sport even if Baffert hadn’t been personable and accessible through the run. That Baffert was made the experience richer or everyone.
2. KATIE GEORGE. A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine at the University of Louisville, and the question was put to me: Who is the face of U of L sports this season? For the first time in years, we couldn’t come up with a “household name” among Cardinal sports football or basketball athletes. The school has been lucky in the recent past. There has always been a Peyton Siva or a Teddy Bridgewater. For women’s sports, there’s been an Angel McCoughtry or Shoni Schimmel. This year, as you looked around the most visible sports programs at Louisville, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who rose to that level.
But if you scanned over to the volleyball team, you had no problem. I’m not sure whether the novelty of Katie George was that she was a Division I volleyball star who also won Miss Kentucky USA, or that she was a Miss Kentucky USA who also was a serious Division I volleyball talent. Doesn’t matter. She presented a poised and positive face for the university at a time when, frankly, it really needed one.
She didn’t enter the world of pageants on a lark. She did some research and found that many successful broadcast journalists had that experience in their backgrounds. And as those who know her will attest, once she got into it, she didn’t get in to lose. She was, admittedly, more at home in the locker room than on the pageant stage, which is why when she was announced as Miss Kentucky USA, she did what came naturally — and gave a double fist pump.
She didn’t get to celebrate quite the same way on the volleyball court, when the Cardinals’ season ended in the NCAA Tournament. Still, she was named the 2015 ACC player of the year, and setter of the year.
She told ESPN: "I think today in society, people pigeonhole you into a position or person they think you should be: 'Well, she's a volleyball player -- she's a jock.’ I want to pave the way for people to know that you absolutely can be this jock on the court, sweating like a boy, and you can be this beautiful young lady who's poised and elegant on stage. But it's not like you have to have two split personalities. You can be the same person in one."
Along the way, you can capture both sports and non-sports fans in a way that few athletes in the state did this year. In just a couple of weeks, George will begin her new journey, which will include reporting for WDRB sports, and news.
3. MATT JONES. Some of you seeing that name here will hate it. Some will love it. But put aside all of the emotion the founder of Kentucky Sports Radio generates with his Wildcat-centric pronouncements and you’ll realize, it was a heck of a year for Jones.
I daresay he never imagined when he started posting on message boards and blogging as just another passionate University of Kentucky fan that he would wind up in the place he is today, as head of a Big Blue media empire of the likes that Oscar Combs built with The Cats’ Pause magazine, back when print ruled the media scene. With his KSR radio program and website, Jones has ascended to chief spokesman for one of the largest and most passionate college fan bases in all of sports.
But this year, he took a large cultural leap. His radio and web audiences have reached such proportions that, a year ago, he was able to land interviews with both Kentucky senate candidates. This year, he broadened that into hosting candidates’ forums for the Kentucky governor’s race on his program and a Republican Gubernatorial Debate — even though he’s not a Republican. He found himself on the podium as master of ceremonies for Kentucky’s iconic political event — the picnic at Fancy Farm. And even found himself being courted by state Democrats to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. (He wound up deciding not to pursue that course — for the present.)
How did it all happen? If you could draw up a blueprint, you could replicate it. But there’s an organic nature to what has been established between Jones and his many followers. Like what Rush Limbaugh established with his radio program (though the two are worlds apart politically), others have failed to replicate his success because its more about that natural resonance than any kind of media strategy. What Jones has been able to do from a strategic standpoint is take advantage of his success. Among his guest hosts these days are national sports personalities eager to speak to the avid Big Blue Nation. Republican Marco Rubio came onto his program to talk Donald Trump and Patrick Towles.
It’s a difficult line to walk, sometimes. But love him or hate him, you can’t deny Jones’ ability to push the boundaries of what he has built, or the success he has had building it -- especially in 2015.
Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.