It is New Year’s Eve, which of course means a time of anticipation of the year to come, but also a reflection on the year that has passed. And what a year 2012 was for those of us in UK and KSR land. The national championship ensured that 2012 will live forever in the minds of Big Blue Nation, but it was also a special year around KSR as well. Drew Franklin will be around a little later with the Top 100 Moments of the Year for UK fans, but this afternoon I hope you will allow me to be a little personal (this is a blog after all) and give some stories/pictures from an amazing year that has passed. So in a year full of great times and moments, here are my picks for the Best 10 events of the year the Mayans said would end us all:
10. Salon.Com on KSR at the Final Four
The Final Four was a pretty amazing time for those of us at KSR (more on that later), but one thing we didn’t expect was to be a large part of a “Behind the Scenes” look at the media covering the event. Soon after I arrived in New Orleans, I met Brian Weinberg, a writer for Salon.com who told me he was writing about sports journalism in the new media age. We had a nice conversation and saw each other at various points during the week. I looked forward to reading his article (which can be read here if you missed it), but was a bit taken aback when I saw this section in its initial paragraphs:
Matt Jones is the chief media villain at the Final Four, the creator of a fan website/blog devoted to the University of Kentucky. The misleadingly named Kentuckysportsradio.com gets up to 150,000 unique visitors per day, and, as Jones likes to brag, it looks like it was produced on an Atari. A cherubic 34-year-old with a Duke law degree, Jones and his KSR writers popularized the slogan “Louisville doesn’t exist.” But Jones is a smart, media-savvy guy, and it’s his relentless criticism of nationally esteemed basketball writers like Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports and Pete Thamel of the New York Times that has earned him outcast status in arena workrooms.
Besides teaching us all what “cherubic” means, the article actually is a good look at the current sports media world and includes some great anecdotes for fans (the Seth Davis interaction with teenage girls is priceless). I had never before been called a “chief media villain”, but if the shoe fits, I guess one should wear it.
9. Getting to Know Vitale
We all grow up with childhood heroes, people you look up to and hope to emulate. For many of us, those heroes are athletes but I realized at an early age that my future was not going to be playing the sports that I so loved to watch. So my heroes were those that athletes and commentators who made sports fun to be around. Every time I knew that Charles Barkley, John McEnroe, Tony Kornheiser or Dick Vitale would be on a television screen or radio dial, I found a way to watch or listen, because I found each endlessly entertaining. This year was the year that I became fortunate enough to get to know one of those people personally. Dick Vitale is known nationwide as the voice of college basketball, an infusion of energy into the sport who has created his own universal vocabulary of “Diaper Dandy”. “PTP er” and “Its AWESOME BABY!” But I know him as one of the kindest souls that I have ever been around, who devotes his life to helping children struggling with cancer and other diseases. Vitale has come on our radio shows, spoken in Lexington and sent shouts out on Twitter, but more importantly to me, he has opened my eyes to what true kindness and generosity is in a public position. Listening to him break down on radio talking about a child with cancer is humbling and it has been a pleasure this year to get to know a man who was once my hero because of his tv persona, but now is because of his life’s work.
8. UK Pregame Show Excitement
How many people get to live their dream? Unfortunately, not many but I can honestly say that it has happened for me. When I sat down with Oscar Combs before the Norwood exhibition game and was able to host the official UK Pregame Radio Show, a moment beyond my wildest imagination was realized. I grew up listening to Cawood on the radio and reading Oscar in print. Two mountain boys who grew up to be Kentucky legends were my lifelines to the team I loved more than any and both were part of the games I so enjoyed. Now as an adult, not only do I get to be a part of the same show, I get to do it while hosting as one once did and sitting next to the other. It truly is a dream come true and the fact that I get to share it with a man as kind, thoughtful and hilarious as my friend Oscar Combs…well it doesn’t get much better than that.
7. Stoops Press Conference
Football was beyond depressing for most of this year and with the possible exception of doing the KSR Pregame Show, attending the games became a tedious affair. However the end of the year saw life in the program after the hiring of Mark Stoops. I always liked the idea of Stoops when I first heard about him and after the hire, I became completely sold. Then, nearly five days after we found out his name, he arrived on campus and things just felt different. The press conference was packed with former players and alumni, and there was a palpable feeling that things could be different. He said all the right stuff, his family looked sweet decked out in blue and the players seemed excited about their new leader. But most importantly, a new energy found its way into UK football with a spirit that hasn’t really been evident since KSR has existed. For the first time, I am genuinely pumped for a new football season and am even following football recruiting (something I swore I would never do). Mark Stoops has arrived and with it, the idea that UK football can be relevant. That is a heck of an achievement.
(I found this picture and had to use it, as it represents a happier time with the Boogie that UK fans fell in love with)
6. Calipari Fantasy Camp
Don’t get me wrong. I know what you are thinking because I thought the same thing. The Calipari “Fantasy Camp” sounds like the lamest idea in creation, with a bunch of old men reliving their youth (or the youth they wish they had) by acting like Kentucky basketball players for three days instead of living in the real world. I was totally with you. But then I was fortunate enough to be asked to participate and I have to say…it was one of the best experiences of my life. Yes, the whole facade of being a Kentucky basketball player was amazing. We got the uniforms, the shoes (which gave me bloody feet), the locker room, the game at Rupp Arena, working out with the former UK stars, being coached by coaching legends (in my case John Lucas, who never stopped yelling at me) and being pampered as never before. It was awesome. But it was also great to once again play on a team, meet a number of fascinating people and get a behind the scenes look at what a program like UK is really like. Throw in a Dick Vitale speech that made me cry, a chance to have my shot blocked by Walter McCarty and a radio show in which John Robic crushed my basketball game to a statewide audience, and it may have been one of the best four day periods of my life. I can’t wait to do it again.
5. KSR Statewide Radio Tour
While 2009 was the year that the KSR blog took off (thanks to Billy Gillispie firing, John Calipari hiring and the Wall/Cousins phenomenon), 2012 was the year that the Radio show hit its stride. We added affiliates across the state, totaling 20 by the end of the year. We saw the online users hit record numbers and we remained the #1 college sports show on iTunes. And for the first time, we won our time slot in Louisville, beating all music channels and talk shows in the key demographics. But the best part of the experience for all of us was the tour across the state to 15 of our affiliates. During three weeks in July and August, we traveled from Pikeville to Madisonville to Somerset to Morganfield and all points in between to do shows throughout the state. From a boat dock in Monticello to a country kitchen in Morgantown to a Burger King in Columbia, we visited the entire state and got to see how many KSR fans exist throughout. Crowds ranged from 25 to 125, and each show gave us a chance to meet fans who listen to us every day. There is nothing I like better than going to small towns across the state and seeing the quirks of each one. The radio tour was a great chance to do that and meet all forms of UK fans, including our Sons of Anarchy friend above who showed up at Mr Gatti’s in Somerset and was immediately hired as the official bodyguard of KSR for all future UL games.
4.The West Liberty Relief Show
As we were trying to determine how to end the radio tour, one of our favorite callers “Rose” suggested we come to West Liberty and do a show from the town devastated by the March tornado. We loved the idea and turned it into a fundraising tornado relief show that could be used to help in the rebuilding. I asked John Calipari if he would call into the show, and he did what John Calipari always does…that and more. He suggested he fly in and do the show live, and in so doing, he created a great moment for the area. The town turned out to see the coach and he showcased his amazing generosity by agreeing to match up to $25,000 in radio caller donations. The KSR fanbase exceeded that call, raising $65,000 and producing what was the most rewarding day of radio that I have ever been a part of. The sights of the town of West Liberty coming out to see their coach, John Calipari interacting with the Morgan County football team and the tears of joy from Rose as she got to hug “her man John” after the show are all moments that I will never forget. KSR has created a ton of memories for me with its fun and ridiculousness, but there may not be a memory I cherish more than that Friday in August in West Liberty.
3. Final Four Week in New Orleans
I am not sure there will ever be another week like the one we had in March/April in New Orleans. After waiting for a title for 14 years and then having to beat Louisville to do it, the anticipation of that week was unlike any other. Throughout the five days in New Orleans leading up to the UK-UL game, I was a nervous wreck. The thought of losing to Louisville was more than I could bear and the group of Card fans who were lining Bourbon Street and yelling at Drew and I did not help. But the Cats got through the rivalry game and things immediately got fun. Even though a game with Kansas remained, Cats fans knew our destiny. We flooded New Orleans on that Sunday and Monday for what was a pre-celebration to #8. The scene above was at the bar Walk-Ons on the Monday of the national title game, as we did our morning radio show. As Drew and I walked to the bar and saw fans literally lined up around the block, we looked at each other with a shocked expression and then just smiled, a memory I will keep for a long time. A crowd of nearly 500 packed the bar at 9 am local time in Louisiana to listen to the show, while others were turned away due to space. The party during that show is one that I will never forget. Fans knew what to come and the place was electric. During the show, I got a text message from Ian Eagle, who was listening in New York and just said to me, “sit back, look around and remember this moment.” I did…and it was only the second best one of the night.
2. Trophy Tour Across the State
After the Cats won the Championship, John Calipari did his customary “above and beyond the call of duty” action by deciding to take a bus tour across the state to show the trophy off to the Big Blue masses. I was invited to document the trip and over the course of two days, the blue bus rode to Ashland, Pikeville, Hazard, detoured to get on a train to Midway and Frankfort, then kept going to Elizabethtown, Bowling Green and Owensboro. At each stop, thousands of people arrived to get their picture taken with the trophy and shake hands with the coach who made it happen. It was fascinating to watch Calipari genuinely thrilled to meet the fans and share this with them. He often stopped the bus, just so he could run into a random gas station, McDonalds or Shoneys, and show it off to another group of unsuspecting fans. I have never seen him happier and more energetic. And the fans of the Big Blue Nation responded as well. At each stop, people were thrilled, hugging the coaches, Assistants, trainers and anyone else that was a part of the entire process. While there were a number of funny moments (including the terror at one point when people thought the trophy had been lost), the trip was most memorable to me for how it showcased just what this program means to the state and its people.
1. National Title Night
During both games of the Final Four, I was a nervous wreck. The UK-Louisville game was too much for me to handle, so I left the arena and watched it at a bar (they did better as soon as I exited). The UK-Kansas game was a bit less stressful, but I still spent the whole second half pacing in the aisle. However after it ended, the elation of everyone involved was something to behold. We were on the court as the trophy was presented, nets were cut down and tears were shed. As Kentucky fans stayed to chant “Go Big Blue” into the night, I was able to do something eight year old Matt Jones would have never imagined…stand on the court while Kentucky celebrated a national title. After it was over, Oscar Combs came up to me with the biggest smile imaginable on his face and said, “cherish this…it doesn’t happen too often.” I certainly did and the aftermath of that moment, the postgame show after (where Calipari, Tom Leach, Mike Pratt, Seth Davis and others spoke to UK fans and multiple callers shed tears while talking) and the Bourbon Street celebration into the night will live with me forever. I took two of my favorite pictures I of the year occurred that night as well. I caught Calipari, Doron Lamb and John Robic watching “One Shining Moment” on the big screen.
And then, moments before the postgame show started, I saw Darius Miller, sitting by himself, clutching the championship trophy. I shook his hand and asked to take a picture for KSR. His eyes lit up and he smiled. It was a perfect symbol of an amazing year and my top moment of 2012.