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Al, Bobby, Jock & Nolan spin basketball memories

June 6, 2018


Four coaching legends got together last week to reminisce about the “golden age” of high school basketball in Lexington. Shown above (l-r) are Bobby Barlow, Nolan Barger, Al Prewitt and Jock Sutherland. (Photo by Mike Fields)

BY MIKE FIELDS (June 6, 2018)

Jock Sutherland, an irrepressible raconteur, was telling one of his favorite stories, the one about when he was coaching basketball at Lafayette, and one night he ventured onto the court during a game, and the referee told him he was going to assess him a technical foul for every step he took getting back to the bench, so Jock had his players come out and pick him up, but before toting him back to the sidelines they paraded him around the gym while a pep band serenaded them, much to the delight of the fans, and much to the chagrin of the men in the striped shirts.

Sutherland has told this tale, most of which is true, probably 1,000 times. And his audience on this occasion had probably heard it 100 times before. But they still laughed for the 100th time.

Sutherland was having lunch last week with three of his former coaching buddies: Bobby Barlow, Al Prewitt and Nolan Barger. (I was lucky enough to have been invited to sit in on the fun.)

The four of them were head basketball coaches for a combined 109 years, chalking up 2,170 victories, 20 region titles and two state championships. The four of them coached at the same time in Lexington for 11 seasons (1972-82).

They were part of what Barger calls “the golden age” of schoolboy hoops in Lexington, when Barlow was striding the sidelines at Bryan Station, Prewitt at Henry Clay, Sutherland at Lafayette and Barger at Tates Creek.

“As far as I’m concerned these were the three best coaches in the state at the time,” Barger said. “Going against them, you had no choice — you had to get better just to survive.”

To which Barlow replied: “Nolan did more with less than any coach I ever knew.”

To show his gratitude and respect for his former rivals, Barger last week gave them plaques, which were inscribed: Thanks for the Memories, “Golden Age” of Fayette County High School Basketball.

Barger, who at 73 is the young guy in the foursome, is the only one who spent his entire coaching career in Lexington: 28 years (1972-99) at Tates Creek, where his teams won 540 games. The Commodores were state runners-up in 1991.

Barlow, 92, is best known for his 14 years (1969-82) at Bryan Station, but he also coached at MMI, Great Crossing, Scott County and Bourbon County. Barlow had 528 career wins, 311 of them at Bryan Station. He led the Defenders to 4 region titles.

Prewitt, 85, had brief stints at MMI and Henry Central before taking over at Henry Clay, his alma mater. He guided the Blue Devils for 29 seasons (1963-91), highlighted by 8 region crowns and a state title in 1983. Of his 654 career victories, 621 came at Henry Clay.

Sutherland, 90, coached at Gallatin County, Harrison County and Madisonville, but he’s best remembered for his 10 years at Lafayette. He had 385 career wins, 185 of them with the Generals, including a state championship in 1979.

Each of the four also coached a Mr. Basketball: Barlow had Jack Givens (1974); Barger had Dom Fucci (1975); Sutherland had Dirk Minniefield (1979); Prewitt had Steve Miller (1984).

(In those days Lexington’s public high schools also got competition from Lexington Catholic, where Tommy Starns won 328 games, including 3 region titles in 18 years with the Knights.)

Back in their coaching days, Barlow, Prewitt, Sutherland and Barger used to get together regularly. When they met last week, however, it was the first time they’d all been together in more than 20 years.

It’s amazing how long they’ve known each other.

Prewitt remembers watching Sutherland as a high school “showboat” going off the high dive at Castlewood Park.

Sutherland remembers Prewitt playing basketball for Transylvania. “You could hear him dribbling four blocks away — boom! boom! boom!” Sutherland said, laughing.

Sutherland credits Barlow for getting him the Harrison County coaching job in 1959. “Bobby introduced me to the principal and recommended me,” he said. “If that hadn’t happened, I’d probably have been a plumber.”

The coaches’ careers intersected on the court countless times.

Prewitt said one of his best victories came when he was at MMI and the Cadets knocked off Bourbon County, coached by Barlow, in the 49th District semifinals in 1961.

Barlow still hasn’t forgotten about Bryan Station’s 1972-73 season when “we had the best team in the state by far” but didn’t make it out of the 43rd District. The Defenders finished 24-3, all three losses inflicted by Tates Creek, with Barger’s Commodores eliminating them from the post-season in the district semifinals.

Sutherland’s state championship team at Lafayette finished 36-1. Its only defeat was to Tates Creek in the 43rd District finals. “After Nolan beat us he told me he did us a favor. He said, ‘You don’t have to worry about that undefeated stuff anymore, and you’re going to breeze all the way through (to the state title),'” Sutherland remembered. “And we did.”

Barger’s only trip to the Sweet Sixteen, in 1991, came at Prewitt’s expense. Tates Creek beat Henry Clay in the 11th Region final, which turned out to be Prewitt’s last game as coach of the Blue Devils.

Barlow said any coach’s success “is all a matter of talent,” and there was no shortage of city talent during the “golden age.” The first-team all-staters in the 1970s alone included Bryan Station’s Jack Givens, Anthony Jackson, Melvin Turpin and Ted Hundley; Henry Clay’s James Lee, Kenny Elliott and Michael Scearce; Lafayette’s Dirk Minniefield and Tony Wilson; and Tates Creek’s Dom Fucci, Vince Taylor and David Tompkins. 

What was it like for good friends to compete and match strategies night after night?

“We hated each other at 8 o’clock but loved each other again at 10,” Sutherland quipped.

Prewitt recalled a what-might-have-been situation from almost 50 years ago.

He never paid attention to junior high basketball so he never knew what players would show up at Henry Clay as freshmen. When the 1970-71 school year began, he spotted two impressive looking newcomers in the gym: Jack Givens and James Lee.

Prewitt knew he might have something special.

But not for long.

The Givens family, including Jack and his older brother Anthony, a track standout, moved into Bryan Station’s district. Prewitt called Barlow and told him he was getting a promising freshman.

Soon after, Barlow watched Jack Givens shooting around in open gym. Barlow still remembers his initial reaction: “Oh, boy, who is that?!”

Prewitt said he tried to console himself by wondering if Lee and Givens, two of the best players the city has ever produced (and who went on to help UK win an NCAA title), would have meshed since both were left-handers. (He was kidding, of course.)

High school basketball has changed a lot since the “golden age.” Prewitt doesn’t think the changes have been for the good, either.

“Back then it really meant something to kids to play for their high school,” he said. “I don’t think it does today. Times change. There’s social media, AAU, and a whole gamut of problems.

“We had full gyms in those days, but the days we had are gone, and they’re not coming back.”

But they’re worth remembering, especially if Al, Bobby, Jock and Nolan are doing the remembering.

It had been more than 20 years ago since  Bobby Barlow, Nolan Barger, Al Prewitt and Jock Sutherland got together before last week.