During halftime of a blowout victory over Auburn, former UK star Tony Delk had his #00 jersey hung in Rupp Arena’s rafters. This made Delk the 38th player to have his jersey retired, the greatest individual award a UK player can receive from UK Athletics.
Plenty of other schools retire players’ jerseys. North Carolina, for instance, has a very specific set of criteria- such as 1st Team All-ACC, National Player of the Year, or Olympic Champion. UNC is clear-cut with what it takes for jersey retirement. But for Kentucky, very little is known about the actual criteria, if such criteria even exist. The only information UK Athletics offers is that:
There is a five-year waiting period – after leaving UK – to be eligible for inclusion into the Hall of Fame, and a 10-year waiting period to have a jersey retired. An individual must be a member of the Hall of Fame to be eligible for jersey retirement. A committee consisting of Hall of Famers, media members, campus representatives and current coaches and administrators elects new inductees each year.
This hardly helps. I have personally made numerous attempts to contact UK Athletics and learn more, but what you see above is all I was given. Due to lack of information and the overall mysterious nature of the process, I took it upon myself to develop a theory which may help us determine what makes a player worthy of jersey retirement. Through my research, I have determined the following criteria:
For a University of Kentucky basketball player to have his jersey retired, the player must, AT MINIMUM:
1) Graduate from UK
1) Be a 1st Team All-American for at least one season
2) Be a 2nd/3rd Team All-American for at least two seasons
3) Be a contributing member of a special team, as deemed by the jersey retirement selection committee
Explaining the Criteria
Graduation- As previously stated, Kentucky has retired the jerseys of 38 players. 37 of these players played their senior seasons at the University of Kentucky. The other player is Jamal Mashburn, who left UK after his junior year, had a successful NBA career, and finished his bachelor’s degree later.
All-American- History suggests that if a player graduates from UK, then All-American status all but guarantees that his jersey will be required. If you were a 1st Team All-American for at least one year or on any All-American team for at least two years, you will have your jersey retired. This applies as long as you have also graduated.
Special Team- UK has, at times, retired jerseys of players because of their participation on a historically special team, even if the individual players’ merits were not that impressive.
1948: The entire starting 5 from the 1948 team had their jerseys retired. Two of those players were not All-Americans, but they were included because as a team, they went 36-3, won the National Championship, and then went on to win Gold for the United States in the 1948 Summer Olympics
1954: Seven members of UK’s 1954 team had their jerseys retired. This squad went 25-0 and is one of just 12 teams in NCAA history to go unbeaten (in the NCAA Tournament Era).
1992: One year removed from a crippling bout of probation, UK rose back toward the top of college basketball, led by four seniors who stuck with the team despite NCAA penalties. A loss to Duke, college basketball’s Goliath for the early 1990’s, in the “Greatest Game Ever Played”, ended their college careers. Their persistence, passion, and defiance of odds, however, let their legacies live on and be referred to as “The Unforgettables”. Indeed they are unforgettable, as their jerseys hang in Rupp’s rafters.
Before considering potential flaws or exceptions to this theory, I must note that there are certain conditions that exist.
First, this is based primarily on jerseys that were retired from 1990-2002, the time in which the majority of UK basketball’s jersey retirement ceremonies occurred. I chose the time period starting in 1990 because that is when UK Athletics began to retire jerseys. Before that, the only retired jerseys were those chosen by Adolph Rupp during his tenure as UK’s head coach. Rupp honored the uniforms of players on his 1948 and 1954 squads, in addition to Layton Rouse (the first-ever UK basketball player to have his jersey retired). Spectacularly, all of Rupp’s Honorees except for Layton Rouse fit my modern criteria. Because of this incredible consistency, I believe Rupp’s selections set a precedent for UK Athletics to use when retiring jerseys. This is why data I used to develop the theory includes players that Rupp selected himself. Keep in mind, however, that although Rupp’s selections fit within my modern criteria, my modern criteria do not necessarily apply to Rupp’s players. Confusing, right?
Second, I must note that Athletics Hall of Fame inducted its first honorees in 2005. Those who had their jerseys retired prior to 2005 were automatically inducted into the UK Athletics HOF. This action 1) gave those older players the recognition they deserve and 2) validated the jersey retirement criteria that UK Athletics created. This also means that Tony Delk is the only basketball player to have his jersey retired since the HOF was created. For my theory to be the current criteria, it is also based on the assumption that the additional requirement of Hall of Fame induction is the only part of the jersey retirement process that has changed since Sam Bowie’s honoring ceremony in 2002, the last one before Tony Delk. Luckily, Delk’s merits also fit within the criteria I set. Because of this, I chose to include Delk in the data.
Layton Rouse (1937-40)- Rouse is the only player with a retired jersey that does not fit my criteria. Keep in mind, however (as I mentioned earlier), that Rouse had his #10 jersey retired by Adolph Rupp, in a time before UK Athletics took the authority to determine the honor. Rouse was UK’s starting point guard in the 1939-40 season and was a 1st Team All-SEC selection.
Jerry Bird (1953-56)- Bird’s #22 jersey was retired with other members of the undefeated 1954 Kentucky Wildcats—an honor that totally fits within my criteria. The weird thing is, Bird only played four games for that team. It is possible that Rupp saw Bird’s in-practice contributions as merit for being honored with the rest of the team, but this is still an oddity. To be fair, he did have to play behind Cliff Hagan and Frank Ramsey, two future Naismith Hall of Fame inductees. Bird went on to have a successful career at UK, as he was later named 2nd Team All-SEC during his senior season.
The Helms Foundation- Helms was the first prominent group to name basketball All-Americans. Some years, the Helms Foundation only had a 1st team each year, each of which included 10 players. Other years, Helms named two teams. Because Helms was one of the only groups that named All-Americans in the 1920s and 1930s, UK considered a Helms award as merit enough to retire the jersey of a player from that time. Players such as Basil Hayden (1921), Burgess Carey (1925), Carey Spicer (1930-31), and John DeMoisey (1934) benefited from this. Oddly, though, UK failed to retire jerseys of other players with the exact same Helms All-American status. Such players include Paul McBrayer (1930), Ellis Johnson (1933), Lee Huber (1941). Each of these three players graduated and technically were 1st Team All-Americans, yet their jerseys do not hang in Rupp’s rafters. Decades after these players, Melvin Turpin was named a Helms All-American in 1983. This was the only service that gave him such an honor. 1983 was also the final year that Helms named All-Americans. Turpin was a consensus 2nd Teamer in 1984, technically the second year that he received All-American honors, but it appears UK did not regard Helms as a legitimate source. The overall inconsistency UK showed with the Helms Athletic Foundation poses a small contradiction to the criteria I set. As a recap, my criteria would add the following players to the retired jersey list: Paul McBrayer, Ellis Johnson, Lee Huber, Melvin Turpin
Why no Jack Tingle? Jack Tingle was a 3rd Team All-American in 1946 and 2nd Team in 1947. He also played four years at UK. Tingle is UK’s only 2-time All-American to graduate and NOT have his jersey retired.
Underclassmen- Clearly, times are changing. In the recent past, UK’s best players have been underclassmen. John Wall was consensus 1st Team All-American. Anthony Davis was National Player of the Year. Both left after one year. Willie Cauley-Stein is a 1st Team All-American, but he is expected to leave after his junior season. First, they’d have to be inducted into the UK Athletics HOF, but assuming that happens, the special committee would break precedent by retiring the jersey of a non-graduate. So far, only two players that left UK as underclassmen have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. They are Leroy Edwards (2012) and Rex Chapman (2013). Arguments can be made that players such as Wall, Davis, Edwards, and Chapman were good enough players to have their jerseys retired, but until a non-graduate finally receives the honor, we will never know the likelihood of seeing some of UK’s recent stars having their jerseys hung at Rupp Arena.
While induction into the UK Athletics Hall of Fame is a prerequisite for jersey retirement, it does not guarantee such an honor. Several UK greats, such as Mike Pratt and Larry Conley, do not have their jerseys retired. Through my research, I determined that a player is a shoe-in to have his jersey retired if he graduates from UK and is either a 1st Team All-American for at least one season, a 2nd/3rd Team All-American for at least two seasons, or a member of a “special” team as deemed by UK Athletics. This theory is imperfect. It leaves several exceptions and unanswered questions and is based on decisions made more than a decade ago. Basketball at UK and nationwide has changed drastically. This theory has no way of taking these changes into account. Nonetheless, it is the most accurate set of criteria I could identify. Feel free to critique or ask questions. The more information, the better!
P.S.: Based on Hall of Fame status and the criteria set in my theory, Tayshaun Prince will be the next Wildcat to have his jersey retired.