When the sun peaked up in Lexington, Ky., of Tuesday, there was at first a collective gasp, then a groan, and even some tears as neighborhoods in the Commonwealth opened their copies of the newspaper, the Herald-Leader. The headline of the day revealed the state’s former Commissioner of Agriculture --- Richard Dwight Farmer, Jr. – had been indicted by a federal grand jury with four counts of misappropriating property and money, and another of soliciting property to influence state business (bribery.)
In Kentucky that is of small consequence when compared to the fact the man charged is also “Richie Farmer,” perhaps the greatest high school basketball player in the history of the hoop-sacred state and still very much a member of the University of Kentucky team best known in the colorful Wildcats’ lore as “The Unforgettables.
I know that sounds silly but for those who know and worship at the holy grail of UK basketball, the tears that fell of Tuesday were a terribly sad culmination of a scene that was shown worldwide of Farmer collapsing on the floor at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, this in 1992 in the East Regional finals of the NCAA tournament. Duke’s Christian Laettner caught a full-court inbounds pass from Grant Hill, twirled, and hit a 17-foot jumper to give “Coach K” and the Blue Devils a 104-103 win over the sobbing Farmer and the Wildcats.
You still don’t understand. The 1992 game is universally recognized as the “greatest college basketball game ever played.” When Hill threw in the pass, there were 2.1 seconds left on an overtime clock that had seen five lead changes in 35.1 seconds and, when Laettner canned “a shot I have been practicing for four years,” he was ten-for-ten from the field and ten-for-ten from the foul line.
Several days later, the Kentucky team was enshrined as “The Unforgettables” because Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, John Pelfrey and Sean Woods had survived two seasons of NCAA exile after “Fast Eddie” Sutton ran afoul of the rules and then compiled a 29-7 record for Rick Pitino before falling to the mighty Blue Devils, who soon won a second national championship in as many years.
Now Richie Farmer has collapsed again.
Of the four seniors to have their jerseys still hanging in Rupp, it was Farmer who was easily the most beloved. In high school he played for tiny Clay County in the eastern part of the state and, in his sophomore year, he first captured the hearts of the “Blue Crazies” when he got a rag-tag bunch all the way to the state’s Sweet 16.
Richie had a heavy beard, even before he could drive a car, and the next year attained Adolph Rupp status when he brought Clay County back to the state, out-dueled soon-to-be Tennessee star Allen Houston and his Louisville Ballard bunch in the finals, and won the first state championship for the “mountain people” in the eastern part of the state since 1956.
Before his senior year in high school, Farmer was on everyone’s tongue and with good reason. Clay County played Ballard once more in the state finals and this time the Louisville team would win. But when Richie – just 5-10 -- scored 51 points that night, the Lexington Herald-Leader actually named him as the state’s Sportsman of the Year, a honor which no high school athlete had ever been accorded.
Kentucky coach Sutton was lukewarm of offering such a small player – which almost got him fired on the spot – and later, when Farmer had earned a starting role under Rick Pitino, the running joke was that between Farmer’s south Kentucky twang and Pitino’s heavy New York brogue, the school had to hire its first interpreter.
Farmer never became a scoring force at UK, averaging 7 points per game in his career, but he was a solid regular and – lordy – when he got the political itch several years after he graduated, he was elected the Commissioner of Agriculture by over 100,000 votes – if that tells you how big basketball is across the state. The next time he won by 64 percent and there were hints he could one day be governor.
But somewhere along the line, things went wrong. Some think he still thought of himself as an “above it all” athlete and now that is being heavily speculated across the state this week. Last year a state auditor said the Department of Agriculture had “a toxic air of entitlement” and, as accusations began to mount, Richie Farmer’s life of flying high fell apart. So did his marriage and his Frankfort home fell into foreclosure.
He lost the third election to James Comer, who promptly fired Richie’s former girlfriend and several of his friends who couldn’t seem to find their way to work. In 2008 it is alleged that Farmer hosted 13 Agriculture commissioners from around the South and among gift items were 25 customized rifles, 52 Case knives, 50 boxes of expensive cigars, 30 gift cards and 125 custom wrist watches. Farmer is accused of keeping most of the loot for himself.
There are other bothersome accusations. They include that he had a basketball court built at his house with state funds, that he used hired employees for personal use, that he accepted three ATVs in return for a state-built track and that he allegedly misused almost a half-million in taxpayer money.
Farmer has been charged with a whopping 42 ethical counts but the federal counts are most serious; each carries a jail sentence of up to ten years and a $250,000 fine. But, in Kentucky, where Richie once thrilled every kid who had a transistor radio before he ever wore Wildcat Blue, the tragic downfall of a favorite son is worse than some kid 150 years ago who didn’t return from Gettysburg.
After all, Richie Farmer is an “Unforgettable.”