RIP, Bobby Keith: Clay County icon; basketball genius

October 5, 2016 FieldsColumn

Bobby Keith, who guided Clay County to the 1987 Sweet Sixteen championship and was regarded as one of the greatest basketball coaches in state history, passed away Wednesday after suffering a heart attack. He was 75.

Keith was an absolute basketball genius. He guided his beloved Clay County Tigers for 27 seasons, leading them to 18 (!) 13th Region titles. His 767 career victories are fifth on the state’s all-time list. He had a career record of 767-125 (86%).

Keith was a media favorite because he was always cooperative and always a good quote. After Clay County beat Ballard in overtime to win the state title in 1987, he quipped: “I was hoping so bad I could win one before I gave it up because these things are harder to come by than chicken teeth!”

I wrote this profile of Keith for the Lexington Herald-Leader in 1988 at the height of Clay County’s success. The Tigers were reigning state champions and on the way to their third Sweet Sixteen finals in four years.

 

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BOBBY KEITH (Herald-Leader photo)

BY MIKE FIELDS

MANCHESTER – Clay County basketball coach Bobby Keith has a couple of lucky black cats at home. One is named Midnight and has been around 15 years. “A lot of players used to come by and rub him before we played,” Keith said, “so he’s about worn out.”

That’s why some Clay County fans gave Keith a black kitten last year soon after the Tigers won the state championship. “They didn’t want to take any chances,” the coach said as he played with the furry newcomer named Sweet Pea.

Keith also has a couple of lucky sports coats he wears to big games. He prefers the light brown one these days “because the team’s been on a roll. Besides, Adolph Rupp won a few games wearing brown.”

Ever since last year’s district tournament, the Tigers have also followed a pregame ritual just for luck. After player introductions, Keith gathers his five starters around him. He puts his arms around them, and as they huddle together their heads touch. “We’re sort of saying that if we have our heads together, nobody’ll beat us,” Keith said. “And dad-burned if it doesn’t seem to work.”

Black cats, lucky clothes and pregame rituals aside, Bobby Keith is not a superstitious man. In fact, there is probably no coach who leaves less to chance than he does.

Luck is not the reason he has averaged more than 28 victories for the last 18 years, with a staggering record of 508-89 (85  percent).

Luck is not the reason the Tigers last March became the first mountain team in 31 years to win the boys’ state title.

Luck is not the reason Clay County is currently No. 12 in the nation and No. 1 in Kentucky with a 21-1 record and 32 consecutive victories over state competition.

Luck does not play defense, sink last-second free throws or plot game-winning strategies for a team that isn’t big, quick or blessed with a bunch of great athletes.

“Anybody who wins at anything needs luck,” Keith said, “but you can’t count on it. My philosophy has always been that if you work hard enough, good things are going to happen.”

It’d be hard to find anybody who works harder than Bobby Keith. His schedule during basketball season is unrelenting. He teaches three math classes a day, oversees a study hall and home room. He works 25 hours a week at a clothing store (Dobson & Keith) he owns with his father-in-law. He holds practices, studies film, travels anywhere and everywhere to scout and play games.

“During the season it’s not uncommon for a fella to put in a 100-hour work week,” Keith said in the middle of a 100-hour work week.

“Bobby’s thinking basketball day and night,” said Stanley Abner, a Clay County teacher who has been around the Tigers for more than 40 years. “It’s an around-the-clock job for him.”

Does Keith overdo it?

“He’s smart enough to know how far to push himself,” said Richie Farmer, the Tigers’ star guard. “He knows what could happen.”

It almost happened last summer.

It was lunch time one day last week and Keith was sitting at a corner table in Bob & Skyler’s, his favorite eating establishment in Manchester. The buffet on this particular day included meat loaf with mushroom gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn bread, and for dessert, peach cobbler.

“All of it’s home cookin’,” Keith said. “Best eatin’ around.”

But Keith was not eating.

Instead, he was explaining how he was still on a strict cholesterol diet five months after undergoing quadruple bypass heart surgery, which came five months after he lived his dream by guiding Clay County to the Sweet Sixteen championship.

“After we won the state title I said I could die a happy man. I didn’t know how close I came to doing just that,” he said.

Keith thought he was as “healthy as a horse” last August when he went to Lexington for a checkup. But after taking a stress test, he got some startling news. “The doctor told me I had between five minutes and three months to live unless I had surgery.”

The next day Keith was cut open to relieve artery blockage.

The problem really didn’t surprise the 47-year-old coach. His family has a history of cardiovascular ailments. His sister Geneva had open-heart surgery almost 20 years ago. His brother Billy has had the operation, too. Another brother, Orville, died during the same kind of surgery.

“But I wasn’t nervous at all,” Keith said. “Just like I wasn’t nervous before the state championship game last year. I felt both operations would be successful.

“But you know what’s crazy? The two doctors who took care of me (Joseph Harkness and Thomas Donohue), they’re the real heroes. They’re saving lives every day. Me, all I do is occasionally win a basketball game. But I’m the guy everybody reads about.”

Keith is a study in concentration on game days. He’s so focused on figuring out how to win that he is almost unapproachable.

“I’m not that bad,” he said with a smile. “I’ve gotten a lot more relaxed over the years.”

When Richie Farmer heard that, he had a ready reaction: “Bull. Coach can’t even eat on game day. Even before he had his heart trouble all he could eat was cheese and crackers.”

Eugene Rawlings is another player who will testify to his coach’s intensity. After Keith was released from the hospital last summer, doctors told him he’d be better than ever. After seeing Keith back in action at practice, Rawlings had another version of the prognosis.

“The doctors were right,” Rawlings said. “Coach is badder than ever.”

Keith laughs at that story, but he doesn’t do much laughing on the sidelines during games. Flanked by assistants Larry Sizemore and William “Red” Campbell, Keith puts as much energy into a game as his players. And yes, his language has been known to deteriorate along with a Clay County lead.

“His old college coach once said Bobby had two vocabularies – one for the college classroom and one for Clay County,” said J.W. “Spider” Thurman, who was Keith’s high school coach.

But Keith, a superb motivator, is probably more eloquent at halftime of a close game.

“I have been known to give an inspirational speech now and then,” he said with a smile. “But it’s nothing new. The players and fans are used to it. I’ve been around here for a while.”

Indeed he has.

Bobby Keith has had a magnificent obsession with Clay County basketball for 35 years, ever since he was a kid following the exploits of the 1953 Tigers, who went undefeated before losing to eventual state champ Lafayette in the quarterfinals of the Sweet Sixteen.

A few years later, when he was a freshman, Keith tried out for the Clay County team. But Thurman told he was too little to play.

“I remember we’d have practice on one end of the court, and when I had my back turned, Bobby would sneak into the gym and start shooting at the other end,” Thurman said. “I’d kick him out, but as soon as I’d turn around he’d be back shooting again.

“I finally figured that if a fella wanted to play that bad I’d have him come on out for the team.”

By the time Keith was a junior, he had grown to 6-foot-3 and was quite a player. Very smart and very aggressive.

“He played so hard he was vicious,” Abner said.

“Clay County made it to the state tournament in Keith’s junior and senior years. To this day he remembers the scores: “In 1957 we lost to Hazard 50-47 and in 1958 he lost to Monticello 51-45. I’m still trying to forget.”

After high school Keith left home to get a college degree and play basketball, in that order. He was valedictorian of his class at Lindsey Wilson Junior College. Two years later, he was valedictorian at Union College.

In basketball, he was a defensive standout, earning MVP honors for Lindsey Wilson even though he barely averaged in double figures.

It was no surprise that after college he returned to Clay County to teach and coach. He was an unpaid assistant to Skyler Garrison for two years before taking over as head coach in 1970.

For years Keith was frustrated that his Tigers couldn’t get past the first or second round of the state tournament. The breakthrough finally came in 1985 when Clay County reached the finals against Hopkinsville.

In an exciting title game, Hopkinsville won 65-64 when Clay County, with 11 seconds left to pull out the victory, lost the ball as it was hurrying down the court.

“We came close that year, but I never let that keep me from thinking we could win it all one day,” Keith said. “To tell you the truth, I thought we might have had better teams in 1973, ’74 and ’86, but we didn’t win it then, either.”

The Tigers finally reached the top last year, beating Ballard 76-73 in overtime for the state championship. The celebration has really never stopped in Clay County, probably because the Tigers are ready to make a run at a second straight crown.

Peggy, Keith’s wife of 25 years, is one Clay County’s biggest boosters.

“You bet she is,” Keith said. “When the score’s tied with five minutes to go, she’s so nervous she hits the lobby and waits to hear the good news from our fans.”

Keith’s daughter Stephanie, who manages the clothing store, has been known to blister a referee’s ear. “I thought I was going to get thrown out of Market Square Arena last year,” she said, referring to Clay County’s loss to Marion, Ind., in Indianapolis.

Keith’s son Robert, a CPA, is in Chase Law School in Northern Kentucky. But he knows winning in court can’t be more fun that winning on a court.

Bobby Keith knows that, too. That’s what keeps him young and, at the same time, makes him old.

“Back when I first started coaching I thought every ball game was life and death. I know that’s not true anymore. Although the sun doesn’t shine in Clay County for three days after we lose.

“I’m serious. It’s happened that way for years. The way I see it, my job is to keep the sun shining on all these good people down here.”