Friday, January 1, 2016

Kentuckian of the Year: Honorable Mentions

A lot of people, in their year-end reviews, have complained that 2015 was a somewhat depressing year.  But for Kentuckians, at least, it featured some extraordinary accomplishments.  This was not an easy year to pick a Kentuckian of the Year, and we have more Honorable Mentions than usual.  In many years, each of these people did more than enough to earn the crown:

1.  Karl-Anthony Towns:  Kentucky had a great year in sports, but the biggest story of the sports year was undoubtedly UK's 38-0 run to reach the Final Four.  I've never seen Kentucky win 38 games in a row to open the season -- in fact, no one has done it before, and we will not likely see anyone do it again.  Everyone on the team -- along with Coach Calipari -- deserves great credit for this accomplishment.  But the star of the team, and one of the best UK players I have ever seen, was freshman Karl-Anthony Towns.  He shot 57.7 percent from two-point range, made 81.3 percent of his free throws, and was a dominant force inside throughout the year.  In the Final Four game against Wisconsin, he was 7-11 for the field, finishing with 16 points and 9 rebounds.  If UK could have gotten him the ball down the stretch -- or if there had been a more even distribution of free throws (the Cats got only 10, while Wisconsin got 22), Kentucky's run would have been even better.

2.  Jeff Brohm:  In 2009, Western Kentucky played its first season of Division I-A football.  The Hilltoppers went 0-12 and appeared to be badly over-matched.  I admit to being extremely skeptical of Western's move to I-A, but the Tops have proved me wrong.  From 2010 to 2012, Coach Willie Taggart brought Western to respectability, leading them to their first I-A bowl before moving on to South Florida.  He was replaced by Bobby Petrino, who went 8-4 and gave the program a higher profile before his return to Louisville.  Again, I expected a decline after Petrino's departure -- and again, I was wrong.  Jeff Brohm took over, going 8-4 last year and 12-2 (!) this year.  He has also won back-to-back bowl games -- last year Western beat Central Michigan 49-48 in the Bahamas Bowl, and this year the Tops won the Miami Beach Bowl 45-35 over . . . South Florida and Coach Taggart.  It has been an extraordinary run, and Western fans should be very proud.

3.  Emma Talley:  Princeton's finest golfer -- and perhaps the best athlete ever from the proud county of Caldwell -- continued her winning ways, as she added the individual NCAA Championship to the U.S. Women's Amateur title that she won in 2013.  Those are the two biggest tournaments for amateur women golfers, and Talley has now captured both of them.  She has already had an amazing career, and we wish her all the best going forward.

4.  Robert Kirkman:  In 2003, Kirkman (a native of Richmond, Ky.) teamed up with Tony Moore (from Cynthiana, Ky.) to do a comic book about zombies.  Today, The Walking Dead has become a cultural phenomenon, spawning a very successful TV show, video games, books, and a vast fandom.  It tells the story of Rick Grimes, who was a police officer in Cynthiana before a zombie apocalypse largely destroyed civilization.  If nothing else, Kirkman deserves credit for persuading so many hipsters to root for a small-town cop -- that takes real talent.

5.  Mitch McConnell:  At the beginning of the year, we wondered what Kentucky's Senior Senator would do with all the power he has amassed as the Senate Majority Leader.  After years of climbing the greasy pole, it was fascinating to see what McConnell would do once he was in charge of the Senate.  It turns out that his real goal is to keep the trains running here in Washington, and that he is willing -- and, indeed, anxious -- to work with Democrats to make that happen.  Over and over, McConnell made whatever concessions were necessary to keep the government from shutting down, and to ensure that there was no default on the national debt.  Not surprisingly, Washington is thrilled with his leadership, and even more excited to know that McConnell and Harry Reid are great friends.  (This is not sarcasm -- Washington, like McConnell, has a deep and abiding belief that the best policies result from compromises between people who have been in D.C. for a very long time.)  Some folks believe that McConnell is out of step with a G.O.P. that is rallying to the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.  But McConnell -- having broken Congress to his will -- is now focusing on the G.O.P. Presidential race, and if his track record is any indication, he will get a result that he finds satisfactory.

6.  Steven Beshear:  One of Kentucky's most popular governors ended his term in 2015 with a record to be proud of.  During a time of great controversy and economic difficulty, Beshear -- very much like Mitch McConnell, another Kentucky politician of his generation -- focused on staying close to the middle of the road and avoiding huge controversies.  Despite a global economic crisis, Beshear presided over years of steady growth in the Kentucky economy -- growth that resulted in a budget surplus of $82.5 million last year.  Thanks to that surplus, Kentucky's "Rainy Day" fund grew to a balance of $209 million -- the highest it had stood since 2007-08, just before the economic crisis began.  Kentucky continues to have economic challenges -- as does the rest of the world.  But Beshear's Administration will long be remembered for its popular leadership during some of the worst economic conditions faced by any Kentucky governor.  Furthermore, during a time when politics appears to be dominated by rage, Beshear's quiet leadership style proves that even in Kentucky -- perhaps even especially in Kentucky -- the loudest voices do not always finish with the most accomplishments.

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