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Kentucky By Heart: Nobody is ‘crazier about the ‘Cats’ than long-time sports writer Jamie Vaught

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

If you are a Kentuckian or have been around these parts for a long time, to be “crazy about the Cats” is an expression that likely resonates. Most often, it refers to the abiding love that fans have for the Kentucky Wildcats college basketball team. It might also refer to UK’s football or other of their sports teams as well, but most often, it’s a hoops thing.

steve-flairtySteve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

Writer/author Jamie Vaught, of Middlesboro, has embraced that mentality almost since birth, and he enjoys sharing Cats’ stories to those of like mind—a prolific number in the state and even beyond, for sure. He’s written five books on the subject, and his latest, Chasing the Cats: A Kentucky Basketball Journey, has arrived just in time for fans to devour as the March Madness time of year is upon us (or was).

I don’t want to spoil all the fun if you’re a Cats fan but allow me to present a tease for Chasing.

It’s 256 pages, stock full of interviews and anecdotes about mostly former Kentucky players and coaches, as well as with those close to the Big Blue operation or who have been, or are, still connected. How do these names resonate, Bleeders of Blue? Names like Coach Joe B. Hall, Chip Rupp, Cliff Hagen, Darius Miller, Kevin Grevey, Jack Givens, and often-hated Cats’ competitors like LSU coach Dale Brown. . .who Jamie referred to as “Billy Graham in Sneakers.” Also covered are people such as Russell Rice, Kenny Walker, Scott Stricklin, Dick Vitale (Awesome, baby!), Jeff Sheppard, Dillon Pulliam, and of course, a whole lot about Coach Calipari, with whom Jamie fetches some good insights on the coach’s religious faith.

Despite the animosity that many UK fans had for the outspoken Dale Brown, who had some success playing the Wildcats, he actually respected Big Blue, according to Jamie. Brown considered UK-LSU to be “one of the best rivalries in all of college basketball,” and it’s noteworthy from Jamie’s reporting that the LSU coach had tears come to his eyes on the occasions when iconic Kentuckian Happy Chandler sang “My Old Kentucky Home” at the games.

We learn about how Dillon Pulliam never regretted his diminished hoops playing time after transferring from Transylvania to UK, and there’s a cute story about how UK players Jeff Sheppard and Stacey Reed met and eventually got married. An interview with sports publicist Russell Rice gives insight on the life of Adolph Rupp, and the book gives ample evidence of the near universal respect for former UK coach Tubby Smith as a person.

Jim Duff, a seldom-used benchwarmer for the UK hoopsters, today has a high position in the national judicial system, but still finds time to support the program. He provides some interesting behind-the-scenes accounts of his life as a Wildcat. We also find out about being the broadcasting partner and heir apparent to Cawood Ledford, the iconic broadcaster of Kentucky basketball, from Ralph Hacker.

There are many other names fans will recognize and find interesting, and Jamie has them easy to find quickly with a very thorough index. An enormous amount of time was put into putting the book together, with many of the interviews conducted by Jamie, while others are ones borrowed from others’ reporting. It took a truly creative and efficient use of his limited time, as he is a full-time professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro, has a wife and two children, and directs his own web site called KySportsStyle.com Magazine. This is his first book published in a while, and understandably so with all his responsibilities.

Jamie Vaught’s book cover

“Before the current book, my last volume was published in 2004, and that was when my two kids were very, very small,” Jamie said in an email. “So, in addition to my sports writing and teaching, I was kind of busy with family stuff, taking the kids to after-school activities, etc. Didn’t have a lot of time to work on another book until 2017 when I began the ‘Chasing the Cats’ project.”

I included Jamie in the first edition of my Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes book series in 2008. He has not allowed his severe hearing impairment to come between a highly successful career. Quoting from the book, Dick Gabriel, long-time TV and radio reporter on UK sports, said Vaught is “passionate about sports and a very good writer. He’s been able to successfully combine the two as a freelance writer. He also happens to be hearing-impaired. And I say ‘happens’ because it’s never seemed to hinder him when it comes to interviewing athletes and writing about them. He reads lips so well that I’ve seen the reactions of folks who were surprised he has a hearing problem.”

I asked Jamie about what his life would look like when his full-time teaching days are over.

“I don’t to retire for a while,” he said, “but a pretty good retirement plan would probably include covering the Wildcats at both home and away for my online magazine and other outlets. I wouldn’t have to worry about missing my college classes the next day especially if I’m on the road. Right now, I basically cover UK’s home games, but not on the road except for Louisville, NCAA tournament games and sometimes Knoxville.”

One thing is for sure. In Wildcat Country, Jamie Vaught will always have an audience.

Jamie Vaught — in his favorite place.

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