I’ve seen so much in 55 years of covering sports that it takes something unusually strange to surprise me. Having said that, I admit that I was astounded by Eastern Kentucky University’s decision to hire Steve Lochmueller instead of Derrick Ramsey as its new athletics director.
The announcement was made over last weekend, when the commonwealth was in the thrall of the NCAA basketball tournament. I don’t know if it was timed that way in the hope that columnists and commentators would be too preoccupied to give it close inspection. If so, the strategy worked.
Yet the decision deserves close inspection because it is clear to me that Ramsey, the first African-American quarterback in University of Kentucky history, is eminently more qualified, which I shall discuss momentarily.
I’ve had a good relationship with EKU going back to early 1960s, when I was covering state colleges for the Lexington Leader and a kid my age named Doug Whitlock was a student assistant sports information director under Don Feltner. (Doug worked his way up the ladder at EKU and is now the immediate past president.)
I was covering the Colonels in 1965 when Garfield Smith became their first black varsity basketball player. I also watched African-Americans such as Wally Chambers prosper in Coach Roy Kidd’s excellent football program.
But I’ve also watched EKU steadily lose ground in athletics. They’ve run through a ton of basketball coaches since the legendary Paul McBrayer retired after the 1962 season. At best, Eastern has been little more than a stopover for coaches such as Travis Ford, now at Oklahoma State (but maybe not for long), and Jeff Neubauer, who announced this week that he’s leaving for Fordham, a lateral move at best.
Considering how many African-Americans play football and basketball at EKU’s level, it’s important that the university be known as a place that embraces diversity and inclusion. To its credit, EKU has given an opportunity to two black head basketball coaches – Bobby Washington and Scott Perry – and the current women’s basketball coach is African-American. Still, since none of the state’s D-I schools has ever had a black athletics director, EKU missed a chance to set itself apart and create a positive new image for itself.
Here I should mention that both Derrick and Steve are friends. I’m closer to Derrick, having worked with him for more than a year when he was vice-chairman of the Kentucky Commerce Cabinet, but I’ve always liked Steve and his father Bob, an All-American for Louisville Coach Peck Hickman in the late 1940s.
But here’s why Derrick is better qualified:
Steve Lochmueller* Both were student-athletes at UK in the 1970s. But while Steve was a bench-warmer on the basketball team, a guy who got to play only when the game was hopelessly won or lose, Derrick was the fiery leader of the 1977 football team that went 11-1 and was ranked as high as No. 6 in the nation.
* Steve does not hold a degree from EKU, but Derrick got his master’s there.
* Unsurprisingly, Steve did not play pro basketball. But Derrick played 12 years in the National Football League and appeared in two Super Bowls – one with the New England Patriots, another with the Oakland Raiders. Since EKU supposedly is seriously considered a move up to Division I in football, it would seem that Ramsey’s football background and contacts would have been a major argument in his favor.
* I’m sure Steve had enjoyed a successful career in the telecommunications business. But he has never worked a day in a college athletic department. On the other hand, Derrick has made college administration his life’s work. After working for a while in UK’s athletics department, he served as athletics director at Kentucky State. He’s currently athletics director at Coppin State, a D-I school in Baltimore, where the academic improvement of student-athletes on his watch has drawn national recognition.
* I have never heard Steve give a public speech. But even assuming he’s pretty good, speech-making and fund-raising are almost second nature to Ramsey. He’s as comfortable talking to a room full of white business leaders and he is talking with inner-city parents about their son’s future.If memory serves, EKU has never had a black athletics director. By hiring Ramsey, EKU would have given itself a whole new image. It would have sent a message to the college sports world that EKU embraces diversity and inclusion. That alone may have opened a lot of doors that previously were closed to EKU recruiters.
So why did Lochmueller get the job instead of Ramsey?
Well, unfortunately, EKU has left itself open to charges of cronyism. Never mind that Ramsey had the support of such people as Jim Host, the man who literally invented modern college sports marketing. From everything I’ve been able to learn, Lochmueller is close friends with Craig Turner, chairman of the EKU Board of Regents. Apparently that trumped all.
I wish Steve Lochmueller good luck in his new job. He’s a good guy and I hope he proves to be successful. But that will not change the fact that he was not the most qualified candidate for the job. He was just better connected, that’s all.
As for Derrick Ramsey, he will not allow himself to be angry or bitter because that’s not the kind of man he is. Like so many African-Americans whose forward progress often has been stymied for all the wrong reasons, he will continue to make a significant impact on the lives of the student-athletes at Coppin State.
But sometimes it must be difficult for him to sell his kids on the idea that equal opportunity is not just a myth; that if they work hard and keep their noses clean and do the right things, the world will rush to embrace them. For African-Americans, in far too many cases, that’s still just a dream.
Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby.