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Story of the Year

What's top 2021 sports story? Derby possible DQ? Basketball air balls, firings?

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — It’s halftime. The horses have reached the 5/8th pole at the Kentucky Derby. The golfers are teeing it up on the back nine.

The July 4 holiday marks the mid-point on the sports calendar. But when Eric Crawford and I looked at the results from the first six months of 2021, the final six months have considerable work to do in the race for Story of the Year.

Here’s our take on the early list of biggest sports stories of 2021.

1. Medina Spirit positive sample throws Kentucky Derby 147 result, trainer Bob Baffert’s future in doubt.

We just sailed through the first Saturday in July and we still aren’t certain which horse history will recognize as the winner of Derby 147. We won’t be certain until the legal and procedural tugs of war over a positive test for betamethasone is resolved.

Medina Spirit, the fourth- or fifth-string colt in Baffert’s Hall of Fame barn, was an upset winner on May 1. Eight days later, Baffert announced his colt tested positive for that drug, which is a corticosteroid banned on race day in Kentucky.

After initially insisting his Medina Spirit had not been treated with that drug, Baffert reversed himself two days later and said the colt was given Otomax, an ointment that includes betamethasone, for a skin condition.

A second sample revealed the same result. Baffert, Churchill Downs officials and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission are waiting results from a third test of the colt’s urine before there will be a determination if Medina Spirit is disqualified and runner-up Mandaloun declared the Derby winner.

The saga led to a pair of unflattering stories abot Baffert in the Washington Post. He has been suspended from racing his horses at Churchill Downs or the New York Racing Association.

2. Louisville, Kentucky, Indiana all miss NCAA men’s basketball Tournament for the first time since 1965.

The Cardinals, Wildcats and Hoosiers have won a combined 15 men’s NCAA basketball titles. But in a season of unmatched mediocrity, all three missed the 2021 NCAA Tournament while posting a combined record of 33-38.

3. Chris Mack fires 2 staff members, calls the FBI on one assistant. Mack also deals with fallout from embarrassing video.

Mack completed his third season with the Cards with back-to-back, double-digit losses to Virginia and Duke that knocked U of L from the 68-team 2021 NCAA field.

One of his first responses to the underachieving finish was not to renew the contracts of assistant coaches Dino Gaudio and Luke Murray, two coaches Mack had consistently praised.

Apparently, Gaudio disagreed with the decision because several weeks later Louisville announced it had reported Gaudio to the FBI for threatening to extort the program by going to the media with information about possible NCAA violations.

Gaudio has already plead guilty to a federal charge of extortion. He will avoid prison time but his punishment will include a fine and probation.

It was the second time this year the Cardinals’ program was covered in unflattering light. In February a video was leaked that showed Mack and formr U of L football player Eric Wood taunting UK coach John Calipari over U of L’s victory against the Wildcats at a post-game gathering with friends at Mack’s house.

Mack later apologized to the Kentucky coach for his poor judgment. He described the video as a joke that “went sideways.”

4. Indiana fires Archie Miller, hires Mike Woodson.

Archie Miller exited the IU basketball program in March with six consecutive losses, three years remaining on his 7-year contract, a buyout of more than $10 million and boos ringing in his ears.

After four joyless seasons of failing to make the NCAA Tournament, Miller had completely lost the fan base. His replacement was Mike Woodson, the first full-time coach with connections to Bob Knight to take control of the Hoosiers’ program since 2000.

In less than four months on the job, Woodson convinced a half-dozen players, including IU star Trayce Jackson-Davis, not to transfer; added 3 guys from the NCAA transfer portal and signed guard Tamar Bates, a 5-star recruit.

5. Louisville Hall of Famer Butch Beard asks to be disassociated from the U of L basketball program.

Beard’s anger about U of L’s commitment to racial diversity, the administration’s handling of multiple NCAA scandals and the lack of a statue to honor his late Hall of Fame teammate Wes Unseld went public in January.

Beard asked the school to remove him from its athletic Hall of Fame and to take his name out of the program’s record book. Beard’s anger resulted in a series of telephone calls with U of L president Dr. Neeli Bendapudi.

6. Kentucky women win NCAA volleyball title.

There was not a ton of tradition to work with when Craig Skinner took control of the UK volleyball program in 2004 but Skinner methodically took care of that.

He built the Wildcats into a regional and then national power — and delivered a remarkable achievement in April when the Wildcats defeated Texas 3-1 for the NCAA title. UK became the first Southeastern Conference program to win that title and only the second program based east of the Mississippi River.

7. Louisville and Indiana women’s basketball teams make NCAA Elite Eight.

As their men’s programs struggled, the Cardinals and Hoosiers soared in the women’s game.

Jeff Walz led U of L to its seventh Elite Eight since the 2008 season as the Cards (26-4) lost to Stanford in the regional finals at the NCAA bubble in San Antonio, Texas.

Indiana defeated VCU, Belmont and North Carolina State before losing to Arizona in its regional final in San Antonio. It was the Hoosiers’ first Elite Eight finish in program history and coach Teri Moren will welcome back all five starters next season.

8. Venues reopen to fans after 2020 COVID-19 challenges.

After a year of limited fan access because of the novel coronavirus, Louisville, Kentucky and Indiana have all announced that their football stadiums will be open to full capacity when the 2021 season begins in September.

9. Legendary Central High football coach Ty Scroggins loses battle with COVID.

Scroggins, a community icon who won 5 Kentucky state football titles at Central High School, lost his battle to COVID in early February. He was 49.

A former star at Fairdale High School who also played football at U of L, Scroggins built Central into a consistent power with immense school-wide pride.

10. Bellarmine finishes second in first ASUN season.

Scott Davenport’s vision for a successful transition to Division I basketball was realized as the Knights went 10-3 during their initial season in the ASUN, just one game behind league champion Liberty.

The Knights finished 13-7 overall, sweeping all three of their 2-game ASUN road trips.

Just missed: Racing Louisville FC wins 3 of its first 8 matches during its first season in the NWSL; After pocketing $14 million buyout from Louisville, Bobby Petrino coaches Southwest Missouri to FCS playoffs; golfer Justin Thomas utters homophobic slur at Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii; U of L, UK, IU all miss NCAA baseball tournament; Silver Creek boys’ and girls’ basketball teams win Indiana Class 3A titles.

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