Skip to main content

The University of Kentucky debate program was born out of the early literary societies that hosted the first extracurricular activities on campus. Just seven years after the founding of the University, the Union Literary Society was formed in 1872 by the consolidation of the Yost Club and the Ashland Institute and was operated under a charter from the Legislature. Eventually, the society had a well-furnished hall in the Main Building that housed a library, due in part to an appropriation from the state. The society held weekly meetings devoted to declamations, essays and debates, as well as an annual oratory and debate contest on February 22 of each year.

The Patterson Literary Society was formed in 1887, under the suggestion of Governor Knott and named in honor of President Patterson, the first president of the University. The society was chartered in 1888 and was also provided a room and a good library. The Patterson Literary Society had a similar debating contest held on March 26 of each year—the birthday of President Patterson.

The two societies competed against each other for several decades. Examples of early topics included: “Resolved, that every voter should be required to pass an examination in elementary civil governance,” and “Resolved, that Kentucky should adopt the unicameral system of legislature.” Beginning in 1913, the teams fought for possession of the Barker trophy, a silver loving cup named after Henry Barker, the second president of the University.

In 1916, the Union Literary Society debating team “put the team of the Patterson Society entirely to rout in the annual debate.” The winning team, composed of J.J. McBrayer, Thomas L. Creekmore and A.L. Cole, defeated Fred O. Mayes, M.U. Conditt and A.B. Crawford. The question for debate was “Resolved, that the United States should annex Mexico.”

By the early part of the 20th century, intercollegiate contests were common. Early competitions included local rivals like Transylvania, Georgetown and Berea. In 1918, UK won the Intercollegiate Debate State Championship by defeating Georgetown and Berea. The question was “Resolved, that the Monroe Doctrine should be abandoned.” Kentucky’s team for the affirmative was composed of E. Dummitt and L.F. Bischof, and the negative team was composed of E.E. Rice and Ed Dabney. It was reported that the team from Transy faced a misfortune when they apparently forgot a part of their argument.

Throughout the 1920s, intercollegiate matchups increasingly included regional and national rivals, such as North Carolina and Vanderbilt. In 1923, the UK debate team finished the season with a record of 5–1, including victories over Centre, Berea, North Carolina, Western State Normal and Vanderbilt. The single loss was to the University of the South. The last debate of the season was against UNC on the subject: “Resolved, that the United States cancel the Allied war debts, providing the Allies cancel their war debts among themselves and that the German indemnities be materially reduced.” Kentucky won by a count of 2–1, arguing for the negative.

For much of the 1920s and '30s the team was led by Professor W.R. Sutherland. In addition to coaching the debate team, Sutherland taught English and public speaking for over 20 years.

In 1935, UK competed against Vermont using a novel format. Instead of the two regular constructive speeches and two rebuttals for each side, the first speaker of each team presented a constructive argument, and the second speaker subjected their opponents to cross-examination. The debate was a non-decision type. In 1936 UK again took part in a “non-decision” exhibition, this time against Western State Teachers College. The team upheld the affirmative side of the question: “Should power be given to override by two-thirds majority vote decisions of the Supreme Court?”

In 1942, a debate team was formed to enter a series of national intercollegiate radio debates sponsored by the American Economic Foundation, with prizes for the final winners including a $1000 war savings bond. The topic of the “Wake Up America!” debate forum broadcast was “Should American youth support the reestablishment after the war of competitive enterprise as our dominant economic system?”

In 1948, Dr. Gifford Blyton was hired to revitalize the debate program as Professor of Speech and Director of Debate and discussion activities. Previously, Dr. Blyton was the director of men’s forensics at Western Michigan College where his teams won an impressive eighty percent of the time. Despite his record, Dr. Blyton believed that successful debating does not stress winning, commenting that “Intelligent discussion is stronger than misdirected eloquence of speech.”

Blyton taught at UK from 1948 to 1975 and coached the award-winning UK debate team for 21 years. In that time, he collected an estimated 700 trophies and made an incredible impact on the lives on his students.

“I was just one of the many students that Dr. Blyton taught and was privileged to become a debater for UK,” said Stan Craig, a 1966 UK graduate and one of Blyton’s debate team members. “In the classroom and out, he was a friend, mentor and one who helped many students become successful. I would have never been able to stay at UK or graduate had it not been for his kindness and assistance.”

Blyton was a charter member and president of the American Forensic Association, charter member and secretary of the National Council of Communication Society, president of the Michigan and Kentucky Speech Associations, director of Kentucky High School Speech Leagues and was inducted into the prestigious Society of Fellows.

The College of Communications and Information Studies (now the College of Communication and Information) established the Gifford Blyton Professorship in Oral Communication and Forensics in 2002 to honor his legacy as a teacher and scholar. The professorship is unique because it was made possible through the donations and efforts of Blyton’s former students. The effort to raise money for the professorship was spearheaded by Craig.

Dr. Blyton created the tradition of a distinguished student speaker award to honor the outstanding debaters that would come through the program, a tradition that continues today. The first recipients in 1949 were Betty Hammock and Joe Mainous. Mainous would go on to serve as longtime assistant coach to the program and even took over head coaching responsibilities in 1953 when Dr. Blyton was in the Middle East.

His teams were dominant throughout the '50s and '60s. In 1954, UK captured the Tau Kappa Alpha National Championship. The four-person team of James Dundon and Charles English on the affirmative and George Shadoan and William Douglas on the negative competed against a field of 38 schools on the topic of free trade. In 1960, the team of Deno Curris and Tex Fitzgerald would become the first Kentucky team to attend the National Debate Tournament. The duo reached the octo-final round as the 14th seed. Kentucky would send three more teams to the National Debate Tournament in the '60s (Crockarell and Grogan 1964, Page and Valentine 1967, 1968). After Dr. Blyton announced his retirement from debate in 1969, Howell Brady, a law student, would take over briefly as team advisor.

After several years of working with the debate team, Dr. JW Patterson would take over as director of the program in 1971, a position he would hold until 2008. During that time, the UK college debate team sent 21 first-round teams to the National Debate Tournament and had six top speakers at the tournament, the second-highest number of all time. Under Patterson’s leadership, the team brought home a national championship in 1986, a runner-up in 2002 and a Copeland Award in 1994. Remarkably, the Patterson era included top 10 teams in four different decades.

Throughout the 1970s, Kentucky was one of the most dominant teams in the country. Among the accomplishments were an NDT top speaker (Gilbert Skillman), two NDT semi-finals appearances (Skillman and Mary Thomson, Jim Flegle and Ben Jones) and several first round bids (Flegle and Jones, Skillman and Thomson, Skillman and Gerry Oberst twice).

The team continued their winning ways into the '80s with a national championship in 1986 (Ouita Papka and David Brownell). The decade would include two NDT top speakers (Jeff Jones, Steve Mancuso), three semi-finals appearances and 10 first round bids. The list of first round teams included two teams ranked second (Mancuso and Jones, Michael Mankins and Papka).  

T. A. McKinney and Calvin Rockefeller propelled UK Debate into the 1990s by earning a first-round bid in 1990. McKinney would go on to collect a first-round bid in each of his four years, in addition to an NDT top speaker award in 1991. Through the first half of the '90s, UK Debate continued to build on this early success, with much credit owed to Paul Skiermont. Skiermont collected two NDT top speaker awards (one of only three individuals to ever win the award twice), a Copeland Award (Jason Patil and Skiermont) and a runner-up Copeland year (Jay Finch and Skiermont), among other accomplishments. Several other prominent members of the team contributed to the collection of top 16 finishes including Cy Kiani, Jonathan Reeve, Jason Renzelmann, David Walsh and Trevor Wells.

Kentucky would start the new century with a bang, reaching the finals of the National Debate Tournament in 2002 (Hubbard and Tetzlaff). Between 2000 and 2008 Kentucky would qualify for the NDT seven times and reach the elimination rounds an impressive four times.

Patterson was a longtime faculty member in the Department of Communication and an active contributor for many activities and organizations on the UK campus.

During his tenure at Kentucky, Dr. Patterson founded the Tournament of Champions, as well as the Kentucky National High School Debate Institute, both of which attracted top high school debaters from across the country. He also founded the nationally acclaimed Henry Clay College Debate Tournament, as well as the unique Kentucky Thoroughbred Round Robin, which still attracts the top seven college teams in America every October to Lexington, Kentucky.

Dr. Patterson has been active in various speech and debate organizations, having served on the National Debate Tournament Committee, and, with a colleague at Northwestern University, Dr. David Zarefsky, co-authored “Contemporary Debate.” He also served several terms as president of the Kentucky Speech Association.

In the 1960s, Dr. Patterson served as special assistant to University of Kentucky President John Oswald when he directed the University’s 100th birthday, which consisted of over one hundred special events over a yearlong period that included a Founder’s Day visit by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Dr. Patterson was an instructor in debate and forensics for almost sixty years, including nine years as director of Debate and Forensics at Muskogee Central High School, Muskogee, Oklahoma; one year as director of Debate at the University of Arizona and 40 years as director of Debate and Forensics at the University of Kentucky.

After Dr. Patterson’s retirement, longtime Head Coach Roger Solt and assistant Jon Sharp took over as co-directors. Solt coached many of Kentucky’s most successful teams over three different decades including a national championship, Copeland Award and three NDT top speaker awards. Solt was voted the top judge of the 1980s, third in the 1990s and the fifth overall coach of the 1980s.

Andrea Reed served as director from 2010–2014. In that time the program would lay the foundation for success throughout the decade. Under Reed, five teams would qualify for the National Debate Tournament, and in 2013 the team of Donald Grasse and Marcel Roman would become the first freshman team from Kentucky to reach the elimination rounds.

Since 2015, Dave Arnett has directed the program. In that time the team has continued its tradition of competitive success. In 2016, the teams of Donald Grasse and Theo Noparstak and Jonathan Geldof and Ava Vargason would both receive first-round bids to the National Debate Tournament, breaking a ten-year drought. Between 2015 and 2022 the team received eight first-round bids in total (Grasse and Noparstak, Geldof and Vargason, Amar Adam and Noparstak, Dan Bannister and Anthony Trufanov twice, Chris Eckert and Genevieve Hackman, Jordan Di and David Griffith twice), with twelve teams reaching the elimination rounds. In 2019, Bannister and Trufanov won both the Copeland Award and the National Debate Tournament. At the NDT, they lost only two ballots in elimination rounds and completed the preliminary rounds with a perfect 8–0 and 24 ballots. Arnett was named American Debate Association’s Coach of the Year in 2015.

In addition to competitive success, the program has expanded its outreach efforts to promote debate on and beyond campus in a myriad of ways. Between 2013 and 2022, the High School Tournament of Champions expanded to become a full-service speech and debate championship. In 2013, 170 schools and 500 students attended, a number that would grow to 350 schools and over 1300 students by 2022. In 2015, the TOC would become an international event with its first teams from China attending. Within a few years other countries would join the TOC circuit (Taiwan, Canada, Dominican Republic, Vietnam, India) with more expected to follow. Since 2017, an annual China TOC is held in Shanghai, hosting the nation’s top middle-school and high-school debaters.

At the outset of the global pandemic in 2020, the TOC was faced with the prospect of canceling for the first time in its history or trying something that no debate championship had ever attempted: going completely online. After just five weeks of planning, Kentucky hosted the first major online debate tournament in history. This effort and the subsequent digital speech and debate initiative have been credited with contributing significantly to the survival of speech and debate activities during one its most significant challenges in history. In that same year, the Bluegrass Debate Coalition was launched, a program that promotes K–12 debate opportunities throughout the state of Kentucky.

225 Funkhouser Building
145 Graham Avenue
Lexington, KY 40506-0054

Get Directions

Engage With Us

Connect with CI