Editorial note: We’re hitting the road to tell high school basketball stories throughout Kentucky, uncovering the gems of the gyms in all 16 regions. This is the 12th installment of veteran high school sports reporter Jason Frakes’ tour of the commonwealth.
GEORGETOWN – It’s been about 365 days since Billy Hicks’ high school basketball coaching career came to an end last March 10, and the 67-year-old has spent nearly every one of them on a river, creek or lake fishing for walleye, white bass or whatever else is in season.
Hicks made his name as a high school basketball coach, but his happiness comes on the water.
“I’ve got a pontoon boat, four kayaks and a two-man boat,” Hicks says between bites of a Reuben sandwich and chili at a local restaurant. “Around here, I fish up toward Frankfort along the Elkhorn or the Kentucky River. I fish that area with kayaks.
“… My favorite time is fishing on the water and taking it easy. I won’t see another human being when I’m out there. But I can do that and still coach.”
“Never say never,” Hicks said.
Hicks said he’s enjoying retirement after a 39-year career as a head coach in Kentucky. His last game came last March when his Scott County squad lost to Trinity 50-40 in the state championship game.
Hicks is a 1970 Evarts High School graduate and went on to play basketball at Wofford. He got his first head-coaching job at Evarts in 1978.
After three seasons at Evarts, three at Harlan, eight at Corbin and 25 at Scott County, Hicks amassed more victories than any boys basketball coach in Kentucky history, finishing with a 1,013-276 record. The 1,013 wins rank 16th in the nation, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations record book.
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He led Scott County to state titles in 1998 and 2007 and lost five other state championship games. He was named the Courier Journal’s Kentucky Coach of the Year three times, once at Corbin (1994) and twice at Scott County (2007 and 2018).
He lives in Georgetown with his wife, Betsy, but says he spends more of his time these days at his home on Douglas Lake near the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
Hicks recently sat down with The Courier Journal to discuss his coaching career, retirement, the Sweet 16 and other topics:
When did you know you wanted to be a coach?
“Every time I picked up that coal shovel. Every time I went to that coal mine I’d think, ‘I’d rather be coaching.’ That had a lot to do with it. I saw how hard my dad had to work. I saw how hard my older brothers had to work. I thought, ‘If I can get a degree and coach ball, I won’t have to do this.’ I was the first one that didn’t have to do it.”
How did you know last year was the right time to step down?
“Probably the year before would have been better. I knew it was coming. When the losses hurt the same or worse but the wins don’t seem as big, you get complacent. … My wife, she had been a part of it a lot of her wife. It was really hard on her. She’s the one who’s really enjoyed this retirement. We’ve been doing a lot of traveling.”
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Scott County always had been the only high school in the county, but that changed last fall with the opening of Great Crossing. How did that affect your decision?
“That had nothing to do with it. Matter of fact, that almost kept me from retiring, just to be a part of that and the excitement of that. I probably should have stayed another year or two. Scott County has been great to me, and I probably owed it to Scott County to help that transition. But coach (Tim) Glenn and coach (Chris) Wilhite were ready.”
Your son, Tyler, died in a car wreck on Oct. 23, 2012. How close did you come to quitting after that?
“I’d made up my mind to quit because I wasn’t in a mental frame to be coaching or teaching or anything. I told my daughter and wife I was going to go in Monday and resign. Tyler was my conscience. He’s the one person — even more than my wife — that would give me advice. Your kids will do that to you. You know where they’re coming from. They love you. But my daughter looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Dad, I’ve never know you to be a quitter, and you’re going to quit on those kids? You talk to them about not quitting, and you’re going to quit on them?’ So I decided not to.”
That team finished 24-8 and lost in the 11th Region semifinals. How tough was that season for you?
“That was a rough year coaching, but I had some great kids that year. Trent Gilbert, Tony Martini, they were great for me. That’s one time I needed a team a lot more than they needed me. That team probably would have been better off without me that year. But I needed them.”
Who was the best player you ever coached against?
“I know this sounds crazy, but I never saw any high school guard better than Richie Farmer. I saw a lot of athletes better than him. But as far as getting it done and playing, he was the best I’ve ever seen. … He’s the only one we could never trap. We tried to trap him, and he had eyes in the back of his head. He’d get rid of it before you could take it.”
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What’s your first memory of the Sweet 16?
“The first state tournament game I ever listened to, Wes Unseld played Harlan (1964 first round). I was in the fourth grade, and our teacher brought in a little transistor radio to school with her. We listened to WHLN from Harlan. Big Charlie Tabb from Harlan I thought was great, and nobody could stop him. First time down the court they said, ‘There’s an alley-oop to Unseld. Woo, over Tabb.” I said, ‘Oh, man. Harlan’s in trouble.’ … To coach in the same state tournament those guys played in was an honor.”
What’s it mean to you to be the state’s all-time winningest coach?
“Obviously, it matters. It didn’t when I was going through it. It’s a reflection of not only me but my family, my friends, my mom and dad, my brothers and sisters, every player who ever played for me, every administrator I ever worked with. All the thousands of people I worked with over the years, it’s for them. I get my name on the label, but it’s for all of them. I’m probably the most unlikely guy to ever do something like that. My dad hated ball. My dad always said, ‘What’s that old ball going to get you?’”
You’ve said holding the record for most all-time wins in the Sweet 16 (33) means more to you. Why is that?
“All the naysayers and all the drug store cowboys up there were saying, ‘Well, he plays that old man-to-man defense all the time. He presses. You can’t get to the state tournament playing like that.’ So, finally, we started going to the state tournament. Then it was, ‘Well, you can’t win it playing like that.’ Then we won it playing like that. I took so much ridicule, everybody wanting me to change. They’d say, ‘They’re not good on offense because you make them play too hard on defense and their legs are tired.’ The message for young coaches on that is to stick in what you believe in.”
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Are you happy in retirement?
“Sometimes I catch myself thinking, ‘Gosh, what do I have to do today?’ Well, you ain’t got to do nothing! I really enjoyed it last summer. In the fall, I missed it a little bit. But I didn’t watch any games. Finally I got back to town and started watching some games. You catch yourself coaching a little bit. … I have so many connections out there and guys I follow. When they get those big wins, I miss it. When they lose, I thank God I’m not doing it anymore.”
Any chance you’ll coach again?
“I’m 67, so I still have some years left in me. I’ve never really been sick a day in my life. I’d probably have to get a divorce because my wife really enjoys this. … I’m not totally against it, but I’m not looking for a job.”
Jason Frakes: 502-582-4046; [email protected]; Twitter: @kyhighs. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/jasonf.