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Remembering Bourbon County Coach Russ Day

March 30, 2020 FieldsColumn

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Russ Day, left, with Mike Reitz on one of their many trips to Cheddars.

BY MIKE FIELDS (March 30, 2020)

Russ Day, who coached Bourbon County boys’ basketball for 25 years and led the Colonels through a Magical March in 1984 that culminated in the Sweet Sixteen finals, died Monday from natural causes. He was 85.

Day, whose upbeat demeanor made him a delight to be around, won more than 400 games on the high school and college levels. Besides Bourbon County, his coaching stops included Lafayette and MMI, Somerset Community College, and Cumberland College in Tennessee.

He headed the Bourbon County program from 1972 to 1996, and the school’s gymnasium now bears his name.

He guided the Colonels to two 10th Region titles. The first was in 1980 when they lost in the first round of the state tournament to eventual champion Owensboro.

Day led Bourbon County back to the Sweet Sixteen in 1984, and thanks to a series of late-game heroics by Jeff Royce that had Rupp Arena roaring, the Colonels reached the title game before falling to Logan County.

Mike Reitz was one of Day’s closest friends. He did his student teaching at Bourbon County and later served as Day’s assistant three different times, including that memorable 1984 season.

Reitz went on to become a successful head coach himself and took Harrison County to the state tournament three times.

“Russ Day was my mentor. He was like a second dad to me,” Reitz said.

“What he taught me wasn’t X’s and O’s. It was how to deal with players, how to deal with people. He was a genius at that.

“Golly, I got on kids so hard, but he never did. He had a way of getting on them, but if he did, the next time he’d build them back up. And he did so much for those kids at Bourbon County away from basketball. He went out of his way to take care of them.”

Mark Starns, who also spent time as an assistant at Bourbon County (1990-95) and has gone on to coach Fleming County (twice) and Johnson Central (once) to the Sweet Sixteen, learned the same lessons from Day.

“He just had a knack for dealing with his players and with people,” Starns said. “He had a way of always making people feel good about themselves.”

Starns thought so much of Day that when he got Fleming County to the Sweet Sixteen in 2013, he asked him to address the team before their opening game in Rupp Arena, and tell them about Bourbon County’s glorious run in 1984.

“He spoke about that and how you should always believe you can get this thing done,” Starns said.

“He was a good man. My heart is broken over this.”

Reitz recalled one story that Day liked to tell about a missed opportunity during his coaching days at Cumberland College in Lebanon, TN.

“He said some buddies of his down there came to him one day and asked if he wanted to go in with them on an investment,” Reitz said. “Russ asked how much it was going to cost him, and they said $5,000. He told them, ‘Well, I haven’t got $5,000.'”

So he had to pass on the offer, which turned out to be the start of Cracker Barrel restaurants.

Day’s favorite eating establishment in Lexington was Cheddars. He and Reitz were regulars there.

“We always sat at the same table and had the same waitress and Russ always ordered the same thing: Caesar salad and potato soup.”

The last time Reitz saw his long-time friend was about a month ago at his assisted living residence.

“Of course, I took him a Caesar salad and potato soup from Cheddars,” Reitz said.

The last time Starns saw Day, he took him the new edition of the Kentucky High School Basketball Encyclopedia.

“He loved the history of the game,” Starns said.

Russ Day loved being part of that history.

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