There are a lot of people in Kentucky who know a lot about UK basketball.
But it's possible that none of them know more than Jamie Vaught.
A native of Science Hill, Vaught has written five books about University of Kentucky athletics — including his brand-new 256-page paperback, "Chasing the Cats: A Kentucky Basketball Journey." It's Vaught's first book in 16 years, after becoming well-known for his "Crazy About the Cats" books.
Vaught's books tell the tales of the figures we see on the court, the field, and on TV, sharing anecdotes and behind-the-scenes war stories to put a personalized touch on these athletic heroes. "Chasing the Cats" is no different, but will offer new material about the individuals who have made the first-class tradition of University of Kentucky basketball what it is today.
"There is no question that I love writing about sports," said Vaught. "...I already had lots of material to work with that I could use for the new book and I already knew some of the people who were featured this time. So, I thought, 'Why not?' and that made my job of writing much easier.”
He noted that the new book doesn't differ much from his past work, so those who loved Vaught's books before will likely be pleased with what they find within. "I still used the same format – the profiles or features of folks who are associated with UK men’s program – like I did with the other books. The new volume is another enjoyable look at UK hoops through the eyes of student managers, broadcasters, players and coaches. And the readers can go from chapter 1 to chapter 12 and then back to Chapter 3, for example. They don’t have to read the book in orderly fashion as all chapters are pretty much self-contained."
Vaught has served as a longstanding credentialed sports columnist in Kentucky, including for the Commonwealth Journal, and is also a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. He also founded and edited KentuckySportsStyle.com Magazine, and wrote for The Cats' Pause during the 1980s and '90s.
He grew up in Science Hill, and attended Somerset High School before going on to UK. Growing up in territory that bleeds blue helped shape Vaught's passion that would become his life's work.
"It certainly helped that Science Hill and Somerset were not too far from Lexington if we decided to attend some of the UK games at Memorial Coliseum when I was growing up," he said. "Just about everyone in the area was a UK fan. I had some family members who were not sports fans but they sure follow UK basketball on TV.”
While covering UK sports sounds like a great life, it wasn't without adversity. When he was very young, Vaught was diagnosed with a hearing impairment. Vaught's teachers at Science Hill School worked closely with him to help overcome his hearing difficulties. Meanwhile, during radio broadcasts of UK games that weren't televised, Vaught's father would often relay scores and provide comments since Vaught couldn't understand what was being said on the radio.
"Very gratefully, I still have some hearing, but not much. The doctor has described my condition as severely hard of hearing," he said. "But with help of a good hearing aid, lip-reading, determination, and intelligence, I have somehow managed to excel in the classroom as a highly motivated student and as an aspiring sportswriter during the early days when we had no TV captioning and Internet.
"I also had a very good family support," he added. "My mother, who was a school teacher and then a librarian, and maternal grandmother worked with me nearly every day to work on my speech and vocabulary. And don’t forget the good Lord who has helped me in mysterious ways."
Despite his hearing difficulties, Vaught enjoyed his childhood in Science Hill, comparing the atmosphere he grew up in during the 1960s and '70s to wholesome Mayberry of "The Andy Griffith Show" on TV, playing sandlot baseball, and trading baseball cards.
Reading was no problem, however, and Vaught consumed all the sports media he could get his hands on, influencing his own writing as an adult.
“Back in the old days, The Sporting News was popularly known the ‘Sports Bible,’ and I religiously read it from cover to cover, beginning when I was around 10 or 11," said Vaught. "I really looked forward in getting a new issue in the mail every Friday or Saturday. If the magazine didn’t arrive on Friday or Saturday, it was a bad weekend for me. Remember, we had no Internet and no cable television during the 1960s and early 1970s. Other than the daily newspapers, it wasn’t that easy to find news about sports."
Vaught said he loved the work of Sporting News writers like Joe Falls, Jim O’Brien, Dick Young, Furman Bisher, and Jerome Holtzman, among others.
"Most of them were writers from major city newspapers and they contributed the articles to The Sporting News," he said. "I even become friends with one of them – Jim O’Brien, a very nice man who wrote weekly columns about American Basketball Association (ABA) for The Sporting News. Met him in Pittsburgh about 11 years ago, and we stayed in touch via emails and our summer visits to Pittsburgh. I also published some of his works in my new book with his permission. He and Coach Cal knew each other as they worked at the University of Pittsburgh during the 1980s. He was a PR guy and (current UK men's basketball coach John) Calipari was an assistant coach.
Now that he's an accomplished sportswriter on his own merits, Vaught is drawing praise of today's media personalities. Sports radio icon and SEC Network personality Paul Finebaum wrote a blurb for Vaught's newest book: "This is an absolutely wonderful book and a must read for any Kentucky fan. Jamie Vaught displays in 'Chasing the Cats' a brilliant insight to UK basketball and a beautiful writing style sure to please basketball fans everywhere. I don’t remember a book I have enjoyed more. Just a rich and riveting read.” Former player and radio analyst Mike Pratt and Kentucky Sports Radio's Matt Jones also wrote blurbs for "Chasing the Cats."
Those connections led "Chasing the Cats" to include interviews with people outside the scope of UK basketball, but whom Cats fans would be well-acquainted nonetheless: former LSU coach Dale Brown and college basketball's most visible (and controversial) voice, Dick Vitale.
"They are both very down-to-earth, and they like Kentucky and Coach Cal," said Vaught. "I interviewed Dick Vitale at his Florida home and he showed me his Hall of Fame jersey and other stuff in his office. Their interviews were entertaining and I had fun writing the chapters about them.”
Over the years that Vaught has been writing, UK athletics have changed a lot — especially in the last decade. In that time, Calpari introduced Lexington to the "one-and-done" era, in which blue chip players from all over the U.S. are likely to leave after only one or two years on campus, a concept which has basically become the new "brand" for a program that was always steeped in traditions like Senior Night and development of homegrown talent. For many fans, it's hard to keep track of who's on the team year-to-year. TV has also changed the college sports landscape — every UK game is now on the air, and even the top schools across the major sports have a harder time drawing fans to actual games when they can stay home and watch from the comfort of their couch.
That said, Vaught doesn't think fan interest in UK basketball has suffered much, if it all.
"Many (fans) follow the Wildcats on social media while watching the game on television," said Vaught. "Yes, many of them will complain about the one-and-done players but that is not Coach Cal’s fault. But he, Coach K (Duke's Mike Krzyzewski) and others have wisely taken advantage of the NCAA rule and sign the superstar freshmen. But the one-and-done concept has hurt college basketball some.”
Meanwhile, the long-suffering football program is surging under head coach Mark Stoops. Vaught is happy to see the changes which have led to four straight bowl game appearances, an unheard-of achievement in Wildcat football lore.
“With the Kroger Field looking like a new big-time college football stadium and the school’s recent bowl success, UK football culture under the leadership of Mark Stoops has really changed," said Vaught. "Recruiting has improved dramatically. We are getting more and more four-star recruits. The football fans are really excited. In my lifetime, interest in UK football is now at all-time high.”
Vaught is currently signing copies of "Chasing the Cats: A Kentucky Basketball Journey," published by Acclaim Press, at different venues around the state. This Saturday, he will be here in his hometown area at the Pulaski County Public Library in downtown Somerset on Saturday, March 7 from 10 a.m. to noon.
Vaught enjoys getting to personalize copies of his work for readers, and to meet and talk with kindred spirits who share the same love of UK basketball and its rich history.
“We already had book signings in Middlesboro and Lexington in the past two weeks, and they were extremely successful," he said. "I’m so thankful the fans and friends made the effort to attend. It was good to see them."
After the book signing at Somerset, Vaught will have least two more scheduled for Saturday, March 21 in Lexington at Barnes & Noble bookstore in Hamburg Pavilion and Joseph-Beth Booksellers. Hopes are have one in Louisville, as well as northern Kentucky and possibly Pineville.
Making those connections with the people who make UK basketball great — from its coaches and players to fans in humble places like Science Hill, just as Vaught himself grew up — has been a rewarding part of the sportswriter experience. It's a legacy he looks back on with true Kentucky pride.
"I have tried to cover every game like a good sportswriter should. I try to be objective but I write from a Kentucky perspective," he said. "If I do another book, it would be after I retire from teaching at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro where I have taught since 1991. But I don’t really have plans to retire soon if I am still healthy.”