In Kentucky, Coal Wears UK Blue
By Della Watson
Illustration by Tim Gough
I probably lost a few brain cells the night the University of Kentucky men's basketball team won the 1996 NCAA championship. Pulled by some strange game-night magnetism to the corner of Woodland and Euclid in Lexington, I joined my fellow Wildcats in channeling the celebratory spirit of Mardi Gras. A few revelers managed to topple a news van, and corn-fed boys kissed flaxen-haired beauties while jubilantly tossing empty beer bottles high into the air. It was then that my 18-year-old head happened to break the fall of a sky-lobbed bottle. I wore the resulting goose egg proudly, displaying it to friends as a symbol of my fidelity to UK basketball.
Now, as I return to my alma mater 14 years later, I half expect to be conked on the head again, if not by a bottle thrown in joy then by some noble-minded defender of Kentucky's official state mineral. Because this time I am playing for the other team: I have come to examine the folly of the soon-to-be-built basketball dormitory, the Wildcat Coal Lodge.
In October 2009, UK's board of trustees, apparently oblivious to any sense of irony, voted to add the word "coal" to the name of a future LEED-certified dorm that will house the men's basketball team. The name was a contingency of a $7 million donation from a group called Difference Makers, led by Alliance Coal CEO Joe Craft. While other universities elbow one another in various "who's greener?" matchups, UK seemed intent on fouling out of the game by branding its athletic program with the dark symbol of climate change.
"This was simply an exercise on the part of an industry—certainly one of Kentucky's most prominent industries—to ensnare the university in a promotional campaign," says Ernest Yanarella, a political science professor and one of the board trustees on the losing end of the 16-3 vote. Yanarella, clad in a blue and white UK windbreaker, has agreed to meet me in a coffee shop inside Patterson Office Tower. He tells me that Craft has made large donations to the school before, but this was an altogether new tack: marrying the sacred madness of Kentucky basketball to the rock that supplies more than 90 percent of the state's power and provides thousands of jobs.
"There are people who are for coal because it's stamped on their basketball team"
Big Coal is keenly aware of the power that the Wildcats—who've won more games than any team in college basketball history—wield within the state and surrounding region. "I've heard President [Lee] Todd say that when he asks students on move-in day why they came to UK from out of state, many of them say they've always been Wildcat fans," says Jimmy Stanton, the university's executive director of public relations and marketing. "You leverage the power of our athletic brand to benefit the academic enterprise as much as possible."
My visit coincides with the first round of the 2010 NCAA basketball tournament, which UK is favored to win. The evening of my return, I meet a group of student eco-activists in the dark basement of Pazzo's, a pizza and beer joint just off campus. The activists share my fears about attacking coal on its own turf. "It's really hard to try to talk to somebody [about coal] when their entire family is in the coal industry," anthropology major Katie Mills says between bites of pizza. "But I want to help Kentucky become a better state."
The students tell me about the night in February when they dared to wear bright yellow BEYOND COAL T-shirts to a home game being broadcast on ESPN. Several had their anti-coal signs confiscated at the door, and the reception from some fans verged on hostile. "People said, 'You guys aren't here for the basketball team; you just want to get on TV,'" Mills recalls. "That's not true, because I am a die-hard basketball fan."
At least for now, coal still controls the court at UK. The coal industry's T-shirts, bearing a hulking wildcat in a miner's helmet dunking a basketball, have been circulating since the season's first open practice, where they were handed out to attendees. Many still wear them to home games.
"There are people who are for coal because it's stamped on their basketball team," says Kyle Beck, a member of a group called UK Beyond Coal. But Beck is optimistic about the school's environmental movement: The organization recently collected about 900 signatures on a letter asking President Todd to enact sustainability initiatives on campus.
In the hours before UK's first-round game against East Tennessee State, I decide to wander around my alma mater. The bare trees stretch their skeleton arms toward a cloudless sky, and the forsythia is beginning to bloom. I sit at a metal picnic table near the unmarked plant where UK burns coal to heat the school. A steady stream of traffic whizzes by.
From where I'm sitting, I can also see an ultramodern, trailer-size building topped with solar panels—a multi-department student sustainability project perched like a trophy on the sprawling lawn. The tiny demonstration "green home" will eventually be moved to Kentucky Horse Park to dazzle the crowd at the upcoming World Equestrian Games.
Although some UK departments involved with the project are on the forefront of the green movement—students are developing technology that would automatically adjust a building's energy use to correspond with a zip-code-specific weather forecast—the structure seems more of a flirtation with change than a commitment to it. That point is underscored by the mountain of coal sitting in a lot across South Upper Street. The pile, the size of three of the demonstration homes, sits ready to be scooped up by a nearby bulldozer and fed into the heating plant. Its dark slope absorbs the afternoon sun.
That night, I watch the game with an old college friend at Lynagh's Irish Pub. (She shows up wearing a bright blue sweater and large "U" and "K" rhinestone earrings. "You can refer to these as costume jewelry," she says, glancing at my notebook.) The 'Cats win by 29 points, but they'll go on to be defeated by the West Virginia Mountaineers three games later. The Mountaineers are another team linked to coal: Radio broadcasts of their games are piped into the state's coal mines. On April 5, the day Duke and Butler are scheduled to meet for the NCAA championship, an explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine kills 29 miners.
Following the grand Appalachian tradition, Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins delivers homemade pasta and team T-shirts to the victims' families. I am struck by this simple, endearing gift, and for a time I wonder if coal is too culturally entangled to ever wrench from the region. I'd returned to Kentucky expecting to condemn one side of a polarizing issue, but I came away sure of only one thing: If my team had won the championship and my people had flooded the streets wearing pro-coal or anti-coal slogans, I would have run into the crowd with abandon. Just as I had 14 years ago. Only now, a little older and a lot wiser about such things, I'd be sure to keep glancing up, in case the sky—or a bottle—comes falling.
Della Watson is the assistant editor of Sierra.
This article has been corrected.