By Michael Salerno
For Hometown News
SOUTH DAYTONA -- If you want to know everything there is to know about the University of Kentucky's basketball and football teams, you don't have to go too far.
A local resident is one of the university's most prolific college sports historians. William Russell Rice, a Van Lear, Ky., native and a South Daytona resident since 1996, has dedicated much of his life to chronicling the history of the Kentucky Wildcats basketball and football teams.
"I deal in history more than anything," Mr. Rice, 88, said in a phone interview. "I don't do current until the current becomes past."
He recently released a book chronicling Kentucky basketball history, entitled "Big Blue Nation: Kentucky Basketball's Native Sons & Daughters." The book presents numerous facts, stories and details about Kentucky Wildcats basketball that have never before been presented in a single volume, particularly emphasizing the native Kentucky men and women involved in the university's basketball programs.
"Seeing these mountain boys come and go all the way, I thought I would do a book around that," Mr. Rice said.
The book gets its title, "Big Blue Nation," from the nickname given to dedicated fans of Kentucky athletics. It's Mr. Rice's seventh book on the Kentucky Wildcats, the majority of which focus on the basketball team. Although he wrote about the football team before, and is working on a new football book, he said he prefers writing about the basketball team, saying football "doesn't have the bounce basketball has."
Mr. Rice, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps whose regiment was involved in the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II, was working as a coal miner to supplement attending the University of Kentucky for a bachelor's degree in journalism. His decision to attend the school was partly influenced by his admiration for the 1947-48 Kentucky basketball team, nicknamed the "Fabulous Five," which won the basketball program's first NCAA title with a record of 36-3. Some team members played on the gold medal-winning USA basketball team at the 1948 Summer Olympics.
Although he participated in three sports in high school and was a catcher for Kentucky Wesleyan College's baseball team, he never played sports during his time at Kentucky. But he got to know the college's athletics programs very well in the years to come. He spent five years as the sports editor of the Lexington Leader, which serves the Kentucky Wildcats' home base of Lexington, Ky., then worked as the University of Kentucky's sports information director from 1968 to 1987.
Even in retirement, Mr. Rice still dedicates himself to Kentucky athletics through writing books and contributing a column to a magazine focused on Kentucky athletics called "The Cat's Pause." He chose to move to South Daytona after vacationing in Daytona Beach and enjoying the area; he said he found it surprising that many die-hard Kentucky fans live in Florida.
Tony Neely, director of media relations at the University of Kentucky, described Mr. Rice as "an icon of University of Kentucky sports history."
"He is the encyclopedia of UK athletics," he said. "...I'm marveled at his productivity. For all he's done over the years, he's still very active at his age."
Mr. Neely said Mr. Rice's knowledge of the college's athletics has proven to be "an invaluable resource" for college staff. He also noted Mr. Rice was inducted in the University of Kentucky Athletics Hall of Fame, one of a select few inductees who was not an athlete or a coach.
Mr. Rice, who described his induction in 2011 as "quite an honor for a non-jock," recalled at the induction ceremony he was given a standing ovation from the crowd after his service as a Marine Corps veteran was mentioned. He said it was during his time in the Marine Corps, where he was responsible for writing letters to the families of soldiers killed in action, that he decided he wanted to pursue a career in writing.
Mr. Rice said he plans on continuing to write about the college athletics he's known and admired for much of his life for years to come.
"I just like to write," Mr. Rice said. "Beats coal mining."