In Kentucky, it really is madness.

Winning at basketball is pretty simple.

You round up five guys a little taller, a little faster and a little more coordinated than the opposing five.

In the process of winning, you fill vast arenas with fans who spend with reckless abandon on beer, nachos and apparel emblazoned with snarling wildcats or cocky cardinals.

Then you sell the TV contracts for tens of millions and your university lives happily ever after.

Unless you’re in Kentucky, where the off-the-court mediocrity only grows more entrenched.

We can prove it.

According to the US Census Bureau, whether the University of Kentucky or the University of Louisville advances in the NCAA Basketball Tournament, we’ll still be No. 46 out of 50 states when it comes to people over 25 years old with bachelors degrees.

Basketball bragging rights in lieu of actual economic and technical progress are just fine with most people, who live their lives of quiet desperation. (Thank you, Henry David.)

But it should matter to our government officials and civic leaders, who look rather insignificant posing in the CJ while making goofy bets on which town will “win the big game.” And it should matter to the media, which dedicate larger and larger percentages of resources to panem et circenses.

The sports stupor has them completely oblivious to the actual big global game called real life.

So, completely frustrated by all the absurdity of a state with so little to celebrate academically celebrating prowess at a diversion, we made a list.

(We feel a little like President Obama, who – rather than facing down threats to our very liberties – often settles for making a rousing speech. But we do what we can to advance the conversation.)

Here’s our  Insider Louisville list of five education stories more important than basketball that will never get one one-thousandth the media attention of a 40-minute Final Four game.

No. 5. U of L officials, who’ve spent hundreds of million on sports facilities, have never bothered to raise the $1.95 it would take to create a business accelerator to advance sophisticated start-ups. Stanford University, which has successful sports programs, somehow also managed to lay the foundation for the computer revolution. U of L officials haven’t even figured out a way to create a computer engineering program at Speed Engineering School that’s anything but embryonic. Worse, U of L has remained aloof and at arm’s distance from Louisville’s technical innovators.

No. 4. Its stellar Final Four record aside, U of L has a far less stellar record of recruiting world-class brainpower. Four years after former College of Education and Human Develpment Dean Robert Felner was indicted for crimes and misdemeanors, we thought multiple dean searches had yielded nothing. How wrong we were. Turns out Felner has been replaced permanently by Blake Haselton, the former Oldham County schools superintendent. We’re sure Dr. Haselton is a swell guy, but we thought the “vision” at U of L was to build a nationally recognized education program. Which means maybe U of L could have at least recruited someone from another university, not a rural county school system. Hell, Oldham County isn’t even very good at sports.

 No. 3. Basketball players who go onto successful business careers, such as Junior Bridgeman, don’t seem overly intersted in contributing to the next generation of players-turned-entrepreneurs. Worse than that, successful businesspeople who weren’t athletes tend to want to build sports monuments, here. Jim Patterson has donated far more to building sports stadiums than funding scholarships. You may say, “Well, they’re both probably doing this anonymously.” Which to us is even worse. Who’s going to remind the public that it’s okay for universities to be – in the immortal words of Milt Wagner – academic schools?

No 2: The fact that basketball doesn’t seem to translate into greater national recognition of Kentucky’s academic and research programs. Duke University, for example, has been the nation’s most successful basketball program for more than a decade. Somehow, unlike UK and U of L, they’ve managed to squeeze academics in to their formula for success. While it’s not Harvard or Yale, a law degree degree from Duke at least opens doors to most of the prestigious law practices or financial firms across the United States. If you are competing against a candidate from Duke, a law degree from UK or U of L is a disqualification. Duke ‘s medical school received $306 million in National Institutes of Health funding in 2010, more than six times U of L’s $48 million. Guess which university celebrated its take with huge banners on its downtown medical complex buildings ….

No. 1: That U of L Coach Rick Pitino is paid more annually – $7.5 million for 2011 – than the entire 91-person staff at the U of L School of Business, which we estimate has an annual payroll of about $6 million, calculated at a wildly optimistic average annual salary of $65,000.

We don’t dislike sports. But sports success has allowed leadership at our public universities stray from their main mission. And it gives them cover: “But, we’re Number One!”

The reality is, as David Jones, Jr. once noted: “It’s ridiculous that the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky both think of themselves as sports franchises rather than educational institutions.”

Kentuckians pay for being “winners” every single day.

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Terry Boyd
Terry Boyd has seven years experience as a business/finance journalist, and eight years a military reporter with European Stars and Stripes. As a banking and finance reporter at Business First, Boyd dealt directly with the most influential executives and financiers in Louisville.

2 thoughts on “Insider Louisville’s list of five ways winning at basketball makes us all losers

  1. Universities that have mega-sports programs seem to be keeping them pretty much mutually exclusive from the academic side of things, which stands to reason. What a university can try for is to promote whichever team has the potential (most schools have a golden goose, or that’s the goal) and use that as what can be a very lucrative marketing arm for the school.

    At the University of Alabama, it was the same way. 

    Also, I’m not so sure using the possession of a bachelor’s degree as a measurement of anything (except maybe student debt) means all that much anymore, so Kentucky shouldn’t necessarily be hanging it’s collective head in shame. Being productive, adaptable, innovative and always wanting to learn and contribute to society should be the goal, in my opinion. I’m not sure bachelors degrees really reflect those qualities so wholesale anymore.

  2. Universities that have mega-sports programs seem to be keeping them pretty much mutually exclusive from the academic side of things, which stands to reason. What a university can try for is to promote whichever team has the potential (most schools have a golden goose, or that’s the goal) and use that as what can be a very lucrative marketing arm for the school.

    At the University of Alabama, it was the same way. 

    Also, I’m not so sure using the possession of a bachelor’s degree as a measurement of anything (except maybe student debt) means all that much anymore, so Kentucky shouldn’t necessarily be hanging it’s collective head in shame. Being productive, adaptable, innovative and always wanting to learn and contribute to society should be the goal, in my opinion. I’m not sure bachelors degrees really reflect those qualities so wholesale anymore.

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