Bobby Keith’s Sweet 16 legacy

March 17, 2017 FieldsColumn

Bobby Keith played in three state tournament games for Clay County, and coached the Tigers in 33 games in the Sweet 16.

BY MIKE FIELDS

The 100th Sweet 16 celebration this week in Rupp Arena is missing one of the most important figures in Kentucky high school basketball history.

Legendary Clay County Coach Bobby Keith died last fall, leaving all those who knew him with heartache. He was a remarkable coach and remarkable man.

Keith is best known for guiding Clay County to the 1987 state championship, and runner-up finishes in 1985 and ’88.

But his personal Sweet 16 experience went back 60 years.

Keith was in the lineup for Clay County when the Tigers played Hazard in the first round of the 1957 Sweet 16 in Freedom Hall. That was the first KHSAA-sponsored state tournament after integration, and Hazard’s Bob Baker, Don Smith and Linville Wright became the first black players to play in the Sweet 16.

Keith didn’t score in the 50-47 loss to Hazard, but he was honored to have been part of history, and thrilled to have played in the big show for his beloved Tigers.

Clay County made it back to the state tournament in UK’s Memorial Coliseum in 1958. Keith had 11 points in a first-round win over South Hopkins. He had a team-high 14 points in the quarterfinals against Monticello, but the Tigers lost 51-45.

In the next day’s Lexington Herald, sports writer Billy Thompson picked Keith as one of his all-tournament players, a group that also included Julius Berry of Lexington Dunbar and future KHSAA commissioner Louis Stout of Cynthiana.

Keith took over the Clay County program in 1970, and he got his first 13th Region title in 1973.

It was the start of a special relationship between Keith and the Sweet 16.

He guided Clay County to the state tournament 18 times, the last time coming in 1999. He finished his career with a record of 767-125 (86%).

Keith coached in 33 Sweet 16 games and had an overall record of 15-18.

It’s hard to overstate what Keith’s Clay County teams did to energize the state tournament in the 1980s. Richie Farmer & Co. became fan favorites, and record crowds turned out in Rupp Arena.

After he retired as Clay County’s coach, Keith was a regular state tournament spectator, occupying a prime mid-court seat halfway up the lower level.

It’s sad not to see him here this week.

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