There has not been a back-to-back winner of the Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award since Roy Kidd, the iconic Eastern Kentucky University football coach, won the first two in 1981 and 1982.
Fresh off having won the 2022 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award, Kentucky Wildcats basketball star Oscar Tshiebwe can aspire to end the repeat drought in the annual voting by the commonwealth’s sports media members.
That obviously will not be easy for Tshiebwe to achieve. Conventional wisdom so far in the 2022-23 men’s college basketball season is that Tshiebwe has not played as well as he did in 2021-22, when he swept every major national player of the year award.
But what happens if Kentucky makes a late-season charge and a substantial NCAA Tournament run with Tshiebwe leading the way? That could completely alter the narrative around Tshiebwe’s 2022-23 season — and put him in repeat Kentucky Sports Figure of Year Award contention.
In 11 months, it will again be time to choose the one who represents the best in Kentucky sports. For fun, let’s get out the crystal ball and project who the leading contenders to be the 2023 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year could be:
12. Dan McDonnell. No head coach has been voted the Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year since Rick Pitino in 2013. If McDonnell were to lead Louisville — ranked No. 6 in the Collegiate Baseball Preseason Top 25 — to the College World Series championship in 2023, that could change.
11. Travis Perry. No high school athlete has won the Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award since Leslie County quarterback Tim Couch in 1995. However, if Perry can lead tiny Lyon County on a deep postseason tournament run, he could contend. However, Perry’s best shot to win the Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award may come in 2024, the season in which he is expected to supplant “King” Kelly Coleman as Kentucky’s all-time boys’ high school hoops scoring leader.
10. Anna DeBeer. Volleyball is the college sport on the rise in popularity in Kentucky, and DeBeer, a homegrown (Assumption High School) Louisville Cardinals star as an outside hitter, will be one of our state’s premier players in 2023.
9. Forte. Two horses, Flightline (fifth) and Rich Strike (10th) cracked the Top 10 in Sports Figure voting for 2022. The Todd Pletcher-trained Forte could be next, as the Kentucky-bred enters 2023 as the Kentucky Derby favorite after winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall at Keeneland.
8. Ja/Sydney/Lamar. No professional athlete who did not grow up in the commonwealth has ever been voted the Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year. However, the sustained excellence and star power of three former college stars in the commonwealth who grew up in other states — Lamar Jackson (Pompano Beach, Fla.), Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone (Dunellen, N.J.) and Ja Morant (Dalzell, S.C.) — make each a consistent threat to score a breakthrough win in the Sports Figure voting.
7. Justin Thomas. It would probably take winning two majors in one year for the PGA Tour star from St. Xavier High School to win the Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award for a second time (2017 was the first). That is not an impossible aspiration for the talented Thomas.
6. Jack Plummer. The former Purdue and California quarterback figures to put up big numbers running Jeff Brohm’s offense for Louisville in 2023.
5. Reed Sheppard. If the UK men’s basketball signee and 2023 McDonald’s All-American selection leads North Laurel on a memorable Sweet Sixteen run, his high name identification could make him a legitimate Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year contender.
4. Austin Reed. The Western Kentucky quarterback led the FBS in passing (4,746 yards) in 2022 and then surprised many by returning to WKU for 2023. If healthy, Reed will almost certainly put up gargantuan passing numbers in 2023, but can the Hilltoppers achieve the level of team success that would likely be necessary for Reed to make a legitimate Sports Figure of the Year challenge?
3. Oscar Tshiebwe. A strong individual finish to the 2022-23 season and UK making some noise in March Madness are the keys to Tshiebwe’s Sports Figure repeat bid.
2. Jeff Brohm. The new Louisville Cardinals football coach is well-known and well-liked in the commonwealth dating to his highly successful tenure (30-10 from 2014-16) as Western Kentucky coach. In his inaugural season coaching his college alma mater, Brohm appears to have drawn a highly manageable ACC schedule, giving him a viable chance to win big immediately.
1. Devin Leary. If the new Kentucky Wildcats quarterback, a graduate transfer from North Carolina State, can stay healthy, he would seem to have the receiving talent around him to put up huge numbers. Against a schedule that will include both Georgia and Alabama, the question then becomes whether UK can ring up enough victories to put Leary over the top in the 2023 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year balloting.