Recalling Tim Couch’s basketball glory days

March 4, 2016 FieldsColumn

BY MIKE FIELDS

Tim Couch, arguably the most accomplished quarterback in the history of Kentucky high school football, grew up thinking of himself as a basketball player first.

Tim Couch as a high school senior

Tim Couch as a high school senior

“I honestly didn’t like football at all until, I think, my sophomore year (at Leslie County),” he said. “I just played it because my older brother (Greg) did. My first love was basketball. I always considered myself a basketball player. That’s what I wanted to play when I was young.”

And he played it very well. Before he got to high school, he was picked to be on a national all-star team that toured Australia. He was MVP at summer camps.  When he was in the eighth grade, he got a recruiting letter from Minnesota coach Clem Haskins.

As a kid, Couch loved going to the state tournament with his dad Elbert and soaking up the atmosphere in Freedom Hall and Rupp Arena.

“That was kind of our thing, going to the Sweet Sixteen every year,” he recalled. “Since Clay County was close to where I grew up and they had those great teams, we followed them. I remember watching Richie Farmer go against Allan Houston (in the 1988 finals), and Richie scoring like 50 (actually 51) points. That was awesome.”

In 1990, Tim’s brother Greg played for Leslie County in the state tournament and the Eagles knocked off heavily favored Henderson County in the first round.

That helped stoke Tim’s passion for basketball even more, and he eventually became a star at Leslie County.

The 1996 Courier-Journal all-state basketball team.

The 1996 Courier-Journal all-state basketball team.

As a sophomore he averaged 28.2 points. As a junior he led the state with a 36.0 average and was first-team all-state. As a 6-foot-5, 215-pound senior, he averaged 25.5 points despite being slowed by ankle injuries and again earned first-team all-state honors.

He finished his career with 3,024 points.

He played his last high school game 20 years ago tonight – March 4, 1996 – when Leslie County lost to Breathitt County in the first round of the 14th Region tournament.

Looking back, Couch fondly recalled a string of games his junior year when Leslie County was short-handed because of injuries and he was called upon to produce more. He had 60 points in a game against Centerburg, Ohio, when he hit 19 of 38 shots, including six three-pointers, and 16 of 22 free throws. He had 54 points, including eight threes, in a win over Dilce Combs.

Did Couch mind the burden of having to shoot more and score more?

“Oh, yeah, I was miserable,” he said with a deep laugh.

Tim Couch set national passing records at Leslie County

Tim Couch set national passing records at Leslie County

In the fall of his senior year at Leslie County, Couch shone even brighter as a football star. He set national records for passing yards (12,104) and touchdown passes (133). He was named Mr. Football, and he earned multiple national player of the year honors.

After an intense recruiting battle, he commited to play football at Kentucky.

“But I still loved basketball, and I signed with Kentucky with every intention to play both sports,” he said. “They were one of the few schools that were going to allow me to do that. Coach (Rick) Pitino told me I could walk on, and that was one of the big selling points. Florida, Tennessee, Auburn and some others said I couldn’t do that.

“Once I got (to Kentucky), it didn’t just didn’t work out and I stuck to football.”

That winter, if Couch had been able to duplicate his junior season in hoops, he might have won Mr. Basketball honors. “I thought it’d be pretty cool to win Mr. Football and Mr. Basketball, but the (ankle) injury got me my senior year,” he said. “I knew I was going to Kentucky on a football scholarship, and I couldn’t risk getting hurt even worse. So I kinda pulled the reins back a little bit.”

Daymeon Fishback won Mr. Basketball that year, and Couch’s hoops days were over. He never played competitive basketball again. 

“I pretty much gave it up,” he said. “I shot around some, playing horse and messing around, but no running up and down the court. I was afraid of blowing out a knee or hurting an ankle, and I couldn’t do that because football kind of took over my life.”

After a standout quarterback career at UK, Couch was the first pick in the NFL draft (chosen by the Cleveland Browns), and he became a rich man. So there’s no debating football should have been his sport of choice.

“But I definitely missed basketball,” he said.

Since his NFL career ended, Couch has turned his sports focus to golf. He’s worked hard at it and is proud to say he’s whittled his handicap down to a 9.

“During the spring and summer, I’m probably out there five times a week, either playing or on the range,” he said. “I’m kind of obsessed with the game. It’s frustrating, but I can’t get enough of it.”

Just like basketball when he was a kid.