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Billy Hicks, through the eyes of his wife Betsy

March 7, 2019 FieldsColumn

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Betsy and Billy Hicks after Scott County beat Henry Clay for the 11th Region championship Friday night. (Mike Fields photo)

BY MIKE FIELDS

Betsy Hicks has been watching her husband coach basketball for more than four decades, from Evarts to Harlan to Corbin to Scott County, and in that time she’s missed only a handful of his games.

In late January, when Billy Hicks became the first high school basketball coach in Kentucky to reach 1,000 victories, Betsy figured she had witnessed 990 of them.

A couple of weeks earlier, however, she had witnessed an even more remarkable “first” in her husband’s coaching career.

On Jan. 12, when Scott County was rolling to an 87-57 home-court rout of Ashland Blazer, Billy Hicks left at halftime so he could get to the hospital for the birth of his first grandchild.

“I was shocked, definitely shocked,” Betsy said. “That’s the only time in my life he’s left a ball game. I mean I’ve been on my deathbed before and he still went and coached a ball game.”

There are more important things in life than basketball, even for the winningest coach in state history.

When the Hicks’ daughter and son-in-law — Ashley and Jed Johnson — welcomed a son into the world, Billy and Betsy were there with them.

“To have a grandson is the answer to my prayers,” Billy said.

In the following days, whenever Billy held his grandson he couldn’t control his emotions. It prompted memories of his son Tyler, who played for him at Scott County and led the Cardinals to the 2004 Sweet Sixteen.

William Tyler Hicks died in an automobile accident in 2012 at the age of 27.

The baby is named after him — Wyler (a hybrid of William Tyler) Nash Johnson.

“I kept telling Billy, ‘You can’t cry every time you hug that baby. It’s a good thing,’” Betsy said.

Billy Hicks with his grandson Wyler.

The image of Hicks cradling Wyler stands in stark contrast to the image of him coaching basketball.

When he’s on the sidelines, he’s not humming lullabies to his players or the referees.

“He scowls that face and stomps that foot, and people think he’s a monster because he acts like one,” Betsy said with a laugh.

But that’s not the husband she knows at home, the quiet man who shuns the spotlight.

“He’s really very, very shy,” she said.

Billy describes himself as an introvert who’d rather fish or hike than party. “If I’m ever with more than three or four people, I’m working, I’m getting paid,” he said. “I do my job; I go to Kroger’s; I go home.”

The animated guy you see in the gym on game night? That’s Billy the Coach, although Betsy said the one you see these days is a lot calmer than the one from his earlier days.

“Believe it or not, he’s not as vocal as he used to be,” she said. “He’s calmed down, mellowed a little bit. He used to let other people yelling at him get in his head. I think he coaches better now because he blocks that stuff out.”

Tyler’s death also affected him. “That changed him,” Betsy said. “It put basketball in perspective as far as it’s just a ball game.”

Hicks certainly takes losing better than he used to. His wife can’t remember the last time he came home moaning and groaning following a defeat.

After Henry Clay whipped Scott County in the district finals a couple of weeks ago, Hicks got home and watched a Western (Lonesome Dove) on TV.

He can also relax before a big game. The afternoon of the region finals, before Scott County exacted its revenge on Henry Clay, Hicks curled up on the couch with Conway, his daughter’s dog, and took a long nap.

Betsy Hicks never imagined her husband would be in the basketball business this long. When she married him 43 years ago he was coaching Loyall Junior High (and future Mr. Basketball Phil Cox) in Harlan County.

“I thought he’d get in it for a little while, and then get out,” she said. “But he loved the challenge. He always liked the preparation, the practices, all of that work, as much or more than the games.”

Hicks said he couldn’t have coached all these years without his wife at his side.

“She knew what she was getting into,” he said with a smile. “Her dad (Jim Hendrickson) was a big sports fan, so she grew up in that kind of household.

“She knew how much I loved it. And there’s no way I could’ve done it without her. She’s been with me through thick and thin.”

Betsy remembers being at the state tournament more than 30 years ago, when Billy was coaching Corbin, and Bobby Keith’s Clay County Tigers were dominating the 13th Region.

“I’ll never forget it,” she said. “We were sitting in Section 32 in Rupp Arena, and Billy looked over at me and said, ‘Do you think I’ll ever get to coach here?’

“I told him, ‘Yes, if you keep working I think you’ll get here.’”

In 1991, it happened. Hicks guided Corbin to the Sweet Sixteen.

“I remember getting back to town after the region finals (in Bell County) and seeing all the fire trucks, and thinking something bad had happened,” Betsy said. “We didn’t know it was everybody celebrating.”

She and Billy wondered if they’d ever experience that kind of thrill again.

Little did they know that after Hicks became Scott County’s coach in 1994, they would make 13 more trips to the Sweet Sixteen, including state championships in 1998 and 2007, and runner-up finishes in 1999, 2012 and 2014.

Even if the Cardinals win it all again this week, and Hicks becomes the first coach to win three state titles since Ralph Carlisle did it with Lafayette in the 1950s, it won’t be the most cherished Sweet Sixteen memory for either Betsy or her husband.

“The biggest moment for me was getting to see Tyler play in the state tournament and see him kiss the floor (in the closing minutes of an overtime semifinal loss to Mason County),” Betsy said. “I’m just so glad him and his dad got to share such a special moment.”

Billy agreed.

“I never dreamed we’d get there together and I’d get to see him play in Rupp Arena,” Hicks said. “I still thank God every day for that. It was by far the biggest moment of my coaching career.”

He also credits his wife for helping them survive the tragedy of losing their son.

“Me and Betsy are so close that we were able to stick together and help each other get through it,” Hicks said.

“Something like that can destroy you. My heart got cut out. Tyler was more than my son. He was my best friend. He was my soul mate.”

Now he has a grandson to dote on and occupy his mind, even during hoops season.

“Now before every ball game when they play the national anthem, I say a prayer and thank God for my family,” Hicks said.

“Me and Betsy had lunch with Ashley and the baby every day (last week). We’d sit there and rock him and feed him. That’s my favorite pastime now.”

Then, in the flush of having just won another region title, Hicks added:

“But we do have some basketball yet to play.”

Tyler Hicks, left, battling for a rebound in the 2004 Sweet Sixteen. (Herald-Leader photo)

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