Live. Breathe. Blue. Kentucky Basketball’s Quest for Glory: Reclaiming the All-Time Wins Throne
Second place is just the first loser.
I’m pretty sure the late, great Dale Earnhardt was referencing auto racing when he said it, but the above quote could just as easily pertain to Kentucky’s precarious position atop College Basketball’s all-time wins leaderboard.
For those who missed it, the Wildcats regained their vaunted status last month as King of the Hill when the NCAA placed Kansas on a three-year probation and vacated 15 of the Jayhawks’ wins from their 2017 – 2018 season. The Independent Resolution Panel discovered five Level I violations stemming from what the NCAA alleged to be an unfair recruiting advantage Coach Bill Self’s program had due to its relationship with Adidas.
Based on that 15-game swing, the blue-blooded Wildcats currently lead their counterparts from Lawrence by a scant seven wins. With last night’s 86 – 46 victory over New Mexico State, Kentucky’s victory total now stands at 2,378. Kansas, ranked No. 1 in the most recent AP poll (while also favored to win the national title this year), clocks in a close second with 2,371 wins. North Carolina (2,344), Duke (2,274), and UCLA (1,987) round out the top 5.
Historical perspective matters
Who cares, you ask? The answer is a lot of die-hard Kentucky fans do. National championships, Final Fours, and a slew of All-Americans notwithstanding, there’s still an enviable program pride in having more victories than everybody else on the planet. Regardless of the metric used, the minute James Naismith nailed those peach baskets up in the Springfield YMCA, notching as many victories as possible became the ultimate measure of success.
The University of Kentucky has been good at notching victories since the school started playing basketball 120 seasons ago. In 1948, the Wildcats won their first national championship under their legendary coach Adolph Rupp, and by 1968, the program had leapfrogged over Oregon State and Kansas as the winningest program around.
For the next 20 years, the Wildcats extended their lead over the rest of the college basketball world until the North Carolina Tar Heels made a serious run, surpassing the Cats in the total victory count by the end of the 1989 season.
The two regal blue bloods then jockeyed back and forth until Kentucky retook the lead for good after Rick Pitino’s championship run in 1996. The Wildcats would hold onto that lead for another two-plus decades until the Covid disaster in 2021 when they experienced their worst year in school history (9 – 16). That’s when Kansas took advantage and secured the mantle as the all-time winningest program just shortly before their scandalous cheating practices relegated them back to the first-loser status.
The most passionate fan base on the planet
Let’s face it. Kentucky fans are as passionate about being No. 1 as any other fan base in history. As I wrote in my book, Kentucky Passion https://amazon.com/dp/1684351669 , “It all stems from our heritage and culture. It’s that deep pleasure and satisfaction derived from having your identity tied in with the program—the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. Fans in other states cheer on their team. Kentucky fans are invested in their team and the program. There’s an ownership, kinship, and brotherhood that’s hard to explain. It’s like family—or as Kentucky Coach John Calipari calls it—La Familia. Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat.
I’ve heard it explained this way. Kentucky is a small state. Other than bourbon, horses, and fried chicken, there’s not a whole lot about the Bluegrass State that citizens of the commonwealth can brag about. For many, life is a grind. The one thing we do know, however, is that we’re good at basketball. When Kentucky Basketball is relevant and competing for championships, life’s hardships just don’t seem to hurt quite as much anymore. Regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or political viewpoints, Kentucky fans have that common bond—an inherent passion to somehow will their team to victory and to let the rest of the basketball world know how much they care.”
Coach John Calipari’s perspective
I’m sure John Calipari feels the pressure of not being the coach who relinquishes the No. 1 crown. After all, no one wants to be the first loser. Coach Cal is adamant, however, about not wanting those records to be a distraction or burden for this particular team.
“Yeah, we want to do that,” Calipari acknowledged when asked the importance of remaining No. 1 in all-time NCAA wins. “We want our fans to take pride in what we have been able to do. The other side, I don’t want them to have to compete with a five-year period [2010 – 2015] that was like maybe never done before and then try to compete against that. Or compete against something else.”
Kentucky players’ perspective
If Calipari is worried about the program’s exalted status being a detriment to his players, he need not be. Sure, players play for Calipari because they think he can get them to the NBA. But being a part of the program with such a rich and glorious history has its definite perks also.
“That’s an honor,” star freshman guard D.J. Wagner said when asked about upholding the glorious tradition of being No. 1. “Being able to step on that court behind all the great players and great teams that came through here. Just be out there with my guys and for us to be able to do something like that—that’s an honor for sure.”
“It’s a blessing,” countered Rob Dillingham, Wagner’s fellow freshman backcourt running mate. “We want to win as many games as we can. We’re not going to think about that, but we’re going to keep winning. That’s what we’re going to do for sure.”
Well, there you have it. An honor and a blessing. This team doesn’t seem to be running from program history—they’re embracing it, as they should.
Perhaps Reed Sheppard—another uber talented freshman whose father, Jeff, played on both of Kentucky's 1996 and 1998 championships teams—said it best. “It’s really cool,” is how he described being part of the all-time winningest program. “That’s why you come to Kentucky. You know it’s the best—everything’s the best about Kentucky. To be able to do that and doing it with the people that I love, and with my teammates, and the great coaches—it’s really, really fun.”
For now, Kentucky remains No. 1 on college basketball’s all-time wins tote board. Neither Wagner nor Dillingham, however, knew who the first loser at No. 2 was.
“Kansas,” Sheppard calmly interjected with a wry smile.
It just so happens that Kentucky and Kansas play each other next week in the Champions Classic in Chicago. The Jayhawks—like everyone else—will be gunning for No. 1.
“Let’s just compete against ourselves,” Calipari pleaded. “And let’s see how good we can be.”
Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist, military veteran, and award-winning author. He currently serves as a freelance reporter and sports columnist. He is the author/coauthor of four books, Cut To The Chase, Kentucky Passion, From The Rafters Of Rupp, and Serving Up Winners. His latest book, They Call Me Mr. Secretary, is now available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0CMPN9W8P . You can follow Dr. Huang on social media @KYHuangs.
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