I was able to meet with and interview many great Kentucky high school basketball coaches while researching for my book, How Sweet It Is. The experience proved to be so influential that it led me into the coaching profession. In an effort to learn the stories of more Kentucky hoops coaches, I am posting a series of email Q&As with a few of them as the 2019-2020 season gets rolling. From now until December 20, you can purchase copies of my aforementioned book for just $5 (75% off) through my publisher by clicking here. Thank you to Marshall County Boys Head Coach Terry Birdsong for the responses below.
JV: You coached at Calloway County and Graves County prior to coming back to your alma mater at Marshall County. Please talk a little bit about each stop and what made each of the three jobs unique from the others.
TB: When I got to Calloway County in 1999-00, they had never won a regional championship. They had only been to the regional finals twice since consolidation (1960). So that alone was a big incentive for me as a young coach. I was fortunate enough to have a good run of young players, and we were able to win the school’s first regional title in 2003. We got back to the finals the next season, and again in 2006, but fell short.
I decided to leave after the 2006-07 season for Graves County. I loved my time at Calloway but felt like I was ready for a new challenge. I had done my student teaching at GCHS several years earlier, so I had a certain comfort level with many of the people there. I replaced my high school coach, Alan Hatcher, who left for another job (Perry Co. Central). Alan had been one of the folks that encouraged me to take the GC job, which was unique. I knew there was a whole different level of expectations there, along with pressure, but I was ready. I was there for seven seasons and we had a lot of success. We were in the regional finals my first three seasons, winning it in 2009. We would win the region again 2013 and make it to the elite eight of the state tournament, losing to Hopkinsville.
After the 2014 season, I decided to go back to Calloway. It was a very enjoyable time for me, and I had made up my mind that I was there for good. Some things had changed over those seven years I was gone but I felt at home. In 2014-15 we went 30-4, making it the elite eight of the state tournament, where we lost to a good Bowling Green team. We beat Knott Co. and Mr. Basketball winner Cameron Justice in the first round. The following season we had only have 13 total points-per-game returning, so it was a long year (8-20). However, we returned pretty much everyone the year after that, and would go on and win the district championship and 21 games in 2016-17 (my last year there).
JV: How much work goes into planning the Hoopfest each season? How do you conduct the process of finding teams, or is it more so a case of them reaching out to you and you whittling down a pool of “applicants”?
TB: For me personally, not that much. I don’t really have anything to do with the scheduling, or the inviting of teams. We have a choice on who we play, and they work with us to get certain teams in here if we want them, but overall, we (coaches) play a very small role in the Hoopfest planning.
JV: How much do you rely on the Benton and Marshall County High School communities to put on such an event?
TB: I would say a lot, but they also rely on many other businesses throughout Western Kentucky, and nationally. Most of the top programs in the area have, or do, play in Hoopfest, which allows more sponsorship for the surrounding areas.
JV: For all the work that it requires, does it at least allow you to form new relationships with coaches across the country? Who are some friends you have made as a result of the Hoopfest?
TB: It’s allowed me to meet many fantastic coaches over the years, both while coaching here and competing in it when I was at other schools. No one really sticks out more than others, but I have developed some new friendships with different coaches from all over the country.
JV: You played in the Sweet 16 as a player in 1987 and your team was actually up at halftime 43-31 over the Allan Houston-led Ballard team that went to the finals and won the championship the following year. You score 35 points that game to Houston’s 34, but your team fell just short, losing 74-71. How good was that Ballard team? What do you remember about that game?
TB: Ballard was very good! We had seen them play earlier in the King of the Bluegrass vs. Paducah Tilghman (who was also VERY good). Believe it or not, we weren’t that worried about Allan Houston. As crazy as that sounds, he was only averaging around 14 ppg as a sophomore. Mark Bell was the guy we really thought would be hard for us to defend. This game became his “coming out” game and set the tone for the rest of his career at Ballard. I knew I was scoring a lot, but never knew the final numbers until after the game. We led that game for 31 minutes and 54 seconds. They hit two free throws in the final six seconds to win. Still haunts me to this day…
JV: How many people were at that game?
TB: I’m not sure what the exact attendance numbers were but have heard around 18,000 at the games that night. We had a huge Marshall County crowd, which I noticed when we came out for warmups.
JV: People packed Rupp all weekend that year to get a glimpse of Richie Farmer. Did you see him play?
TB: Yes, I saw him play a couple times. He was a VERY good high school player. We felt like we could play with them had we ever had the chance, but we didn’t. I do know that the 1987 state tourney was the most attended in the history of the KHSAA. Every session had big crowds; I do remember that.
JV: What do you remember about that entire weekend? Try to capture it for someone who has never played in a Sweet 16.
TB: The first thing I remember is just the sheer relief of making it. Our fans wanted to go back to the Sweet Sixteen so bad and so did our seniors. The second thing was just knowing that all eyes are on the event you are about to play in. The thought of playing for a state championship was such a great feeling. It’s something that I want very badly for my current players at Marshall County. It sinks in that you are playing in the mecca of ALL high school state tournaments nationwide. The “good job” and “proud of you” comments never got old. People here were just so happy, and we could finally catch our breath and enjoy the moment.
JV: Explain the biggest differences in heading to Rupp as a player and taking a team there as a coach, which you did with both Calloway and Graves.
TB: I’ve been asked this question many times since I started coaching 24 years ago. My answer has never changed. It was a great feeling as a player, but a much better feeling as a head coach. As a player, I just expected us to go, and didn’t realize that you only get a limited number of chances over a four-year career. As a head coach, I know how hard it is to get there, and how much work it takes. The other big plus, as a coach, is that I have gotten to see my players enjoy it, just like I did many years ago. I’ve been fortunate to take four teams to the state tourney, and each one of them have been unique and different. Playing and coaching in the state tourney is unlike anything I’ve experienced in my basketball career.
JV: Is it still a rush as a coach?
TB: Absolutely… that never changes. We are working as hard as we possibly can to get a Marshall County team back to the big dance. It would be a great way to top off my coaching career, but more importantly great for our players and community. We’ve had some setbacks here at MC over the last couple of year, and a trip to the state tourney would be fantastic, especially considering how much the folks here love basketball.
JV: What were the greatest coaching lessons you learned in your time as a player at WKU and Murray State?
TB: I played for many different coaches (high school/college) and have taken some things from all of them. I learned that having talent is very important, not just x’s and o’s. The players make the difference, sometimes in talent alone, and sometimes other ways. But in the end, you have to have good players. I think more importantly, I learned a lot of things that I didn’t want to do as a coach. Both have helped me along my journey over the past 24 years as a head coach.
JV: Zion Harmon is on your team this season. Did you adjust your executional game plan to adjust for his incoming skillset?
TB: Yes, we did, to some degree. Zion is an elite level player, so it’s been difficult at times meshing his abilities and style of play with our other guys. Him not being allowed to play last season really slowed down our ability to be on the same page at times, style-wise. I think we will get there, but it may not be until January or February.
JV: What has the increased attention that he has brought to your program done for the experience of the rest of your guys?
TB: In some ways, it’s been great for our guys. We are participating in events that we normally wouldn’t and they get a lot of attention. The tough part is the pressure that comes with it. Everything our guys do now is magnified with Zion out there, and I think our kids are still adjusting to that. We haven’t done them any favors with our schedule, but hopefully it will pay off in the end.