Richie Farmer: Unforgivable?



By Boyd C. M. Hayes | Assistant Sports Editor

[email protected]

Months ago, former UK basketball star Richie Farmer was cherished as an “Unforgettable.” Today he is certainly unforgivable.

Farmer has seen his reputation as a Kentucky golden boy marred by scandal. The former agriculture commissioner from 2004 to 2011 will plead guilty to charges of misusing state resources and could face up to two years in jail.

Farmer wasn’t just another former basketball player. He was the chosen one — the one to save a UK basketball program sullied under then-head coach Eddie Sutton. He was the all-American boy next door for thousands of UK fans.

Farmer certainly had great power in his popularity, whether he was able to handle the responsibility or not.

From a very young age, he had the Commonwealth of Kentucky in his hands.

“Richie had been accustomed to being a public figure since he was about 16,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at UK. “But he never quite understood how to be a public official.”

As a basketball star for Clay County High School, Farmer was named Mr. Basketball in 1988 and won a spot on the UK basketball team under Sutton, just in time to see the program fall under probation after an NCAA investigation uncovered academic rules violations as well as payment to a player’s guardian.

When many players decided to take their talents elsewhere, Farmer was one of the few who stuck around to see Rick Pitino named as the new UK head coach in 1990.

It must’ve seemed like God’s will that the state’s darling would lead the Cats out of the depths of probation. In 1992, the “Unforgettables” would soar past expectations into the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament under Pitino.

Of course, antagonist Duke and Christian Laettner would put a stop to Farmer’s collegiate journey, but that wouldn’t tarnish his reputation as a basketball hero. In fact, it may have endeared him further to fans.

Not days after their final collegiate game, Farmer and teammates Deron Feldhaus, Sean Woods and John Pelphrey would see their jerseys hanging from the rafters of Rupp Arena, a gesture to express just how cherished the “Unforgettables,” were to Kentuckians.

“Richie was a special case,” Cross said, who spent 16 years as the chief political writer for The Courier-Journal. “He was a Kentuckian.”

He said Farmer was perfect to maintain the tradition of homegrown talent.

“He starred in the state tournament and he was a great outside shooter — that’s the kind of shot that an average guy can make. He fit all the criteria,” Cross said.

It only makes sense fans were so inclined to vote Farmer into office in 2003. In fact, it was widely speculated he could make a run at governor.

But if Farmer hadn’t been a basketball hero, would he have even been qualified to be agriculture commissioner?

Running the largest regulatory department in Kentucky’s state government, Farmer had incredible influence at his fingertips.

The agriculture department sits behind the scenes of so much of our daily lives, from “Kentucky Proud” stickers on local food to the signature of approval for gas station inspections.

And outside of a mere bachelor’s degree, Farmer was almost completely unprepared to handle such responsibility. Since 1988, power has always been placed in his hands, and for no reason other than the fact that he can put a ball through a hoop from 20 feet away.

“If there’s a civil religion in this state,” Cross said, “It’s basketball, and UK is the leading denomination.”

Farmer will now plead guilty on two federal indictments of Kentucky ethics law violations. The initial charges included using state funds to pay close friends to build a basketball court at his Frankfort home, amongst other wrongdoings.

Clearly not every former UK player abuses their power. Many achieve honest success.

But how many Richie Farmers does it take to convince us to reevaluate the responsibility we are willing to give the young men whose notoriety comes solely from their athletic ability?

Though basketball is Kentucky’s “civil religion,” as Cross said, perhaps we should be more discerning regarding the deities we choose to worship and the amount of power we are willing to put in their hands.

Related stories:

Farmer could face up to two years in prison