Q&A with Ryle Boys Basketball Coach Keaton Belcher

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 Ryle Boys Head Coach Keaton Belcher for the responses below.

JV: If someone were to look at your social media accounts without knowing anything about you they would think you were a baseball coach. Tell me about your love of baseball. When did it start? What is it about the game that is so appealing to you as a spectator?

KB: My first love as a kid was baseball.  I have always been a Cincinnati Reds fan.  I guess it’s the dork in me, but I love how baseball is a numbers game.  You have to love numbers to appreciate the beauty of baseball.  There’s nothing better than being at Great American Ballpark on a nice summer day!!  Not to mention, I am trying to visit all 30 MLB Stadiums.  I only have 6 left (Boston, NY, NY, Minnesota, Toronto and Texas). My dad, brother and I are going to NYC and Boston in April!

JV: You were a graduate assistant at EKU. What was that experience like? What were the greatest challenges and greatest rewards? What did you get out of it?

KB: The experience that I had at EKU I am still grateful for.  I met some really cool people there and a lot of them I still talk to today.  Guys like Austin Newton, Russell Abner, Ryan Wiersma, Steve Fohl, and all of the staff, players and managers were fun to be around.  I earned a graduate degree when I was there and, to this day, I am still a proud EKU alum.  The greatest challenge was working in a program where everything was so different than the program that I played for.  I was used to doing things the “Belmont way,” when I needed to switch gears to do things the “EKU way.”  I had to learn to do small tasks such as making coffee for the staff, or ordering food for road trips.  The adjustment was difficult at first, but in the long-run it made me better-rounded. The greatest reward was I got be on a NCAA Division 1 staff to learn under a great X’s and O’s coach in Jeff Neubauer.  He taught me a lot and I am still grateful that my graduate degree was paid for with my graduate assistant coaching duties.  Coach Neubauer coached under current Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Beilein for a long time, so it was great for me to learn from someone with his coaching pedigree.  That 2010/2011 season at EKU helped mold me into the coach I am today.

JV: You spent the past few season coaching Dontaie Allen at Pendleton County. He went from a name not known outside of the county to the must-see Kentucky commit posting staggering stat lines. Take me through that timeline and what it was like to watch both his game and the attention on his game grow.

KB: Timing is everything.  And there was some luck involved.  When I got the head coaching job at Pendleton County in April 2014, Dontaie Allen was about to finish his 7thgrade year.  He played on the freshmen team as a 7thgrader and it was obvious he was going to be special.  So, as an 8thgrader he began starting varsity during the second week of the season.  Every off-season we really tried to enhance his weaknesses to make him a more complete player.  His work ethic was PHENOMONAL.  He’s still the hardest working athlete I have ever been around.  His passion was eating, sleeping and breathing basketball.  I still remember him getting off the middle school bus to attend our high school practices and he had a basketball in his hand. He carried that ball everywhere! Fast forward to twelve games into his senior season he was averaging 45.7 Points per Game (Not a typo!) and had already signed a national letter of intent with the University of Kentucky. He went on to win Kentucky Mr. Basketball despite having a season ending ACL tear in his knee.  The scary thing is he missed 39 games in his career and still scored 3,255 points!! If he stayed healthy he would have broken Kelly Coleman’s state record.  It was quite the experience being in the basketball-crazy town of Falmouth, Kentucky and watching the crowds show up to watch him play.  I honestly tried to stay out of his way and not mess anything up! LOL

I am more proud of the person that Dontaie Allen is even more so than the athlete he has become.  I never heard Dontaie say a bad word about anybody.  He is respectful and treats people the right way.  He is a high character kid and that will travel with him wherever he ends up after UK!

JV: What was it like to reach the Sweet 16 as a Pendleton County payer in 2005? What was that week like in town/at the school between winning the regional and leaving for Rupp?

KB: It was a dream come true.  My high school teammates and I were really close growing up.  We had played together since 3rdgrade. The goal was to get to Rupp and if we didn’t it would have been a huge disappointment.  Our high school coach, Buddy Biggs, got the job when we were freshmen. Coach Biggs was hard-nosed, demanding and could be difficult to play for.  Our team needed someone like him to push us out of our comfort zone.  We developed thick skin and mental toughness playing for Coach Biggs and his staff.  To this day, our 2005 team is still often talked about.  Coach Biggs was the leader of the ship.  Without him as our coach I am not sure if we make the Sweet Sixteen.  As difficult as he was to play for, my high school teammates and Coach Biggs still communicate all the time.  We are extremely thankful for him.

I still remember winning the regional championship game by 29 points, cutting down the nets at the Mason County Fieldhouse and celebrating at Pendleton County’s gym that night with a community pep rally.  It was one of the greatest days of my life. When we left for Rupp Arena from PCHS there was a convoy that followed our team bus.  The whole County gathered street side to wish us luck.  For an 18 year old kid it was pretty awesome.  I still remember running onto the playing court at Rupp Arena for the first time.  I knew it was big having seen it from the vantage of the bleachers, but being on the court made it seem even bigger! For a kid that grew up rooting for UK basketball, it was quite the experience!  We played well, but lost a hard fought game to Louisville P.R.P. in overtime.

JV: You are at Ryle High School now in the Cincinnati metro area. What are the biggest differences in coaching a rural county school and coaching at a giant suburban school?

KB: The biggest difference is you don’t know everyone on a personal level.  At Pendleton County, I pretty much knew every faculty member and the majority of the students.  At Ryle, there are over 180 faculty members and over 2,000 students so it’s hard to get to know everyone.  Ryle is the biggest high school in northern Kentucky.  

JV: What immediate changes did you make upon taking over at Ryle?

KB: Our staff felt like it was important to immediately build positive relationships with the returning Ryle players.  We started communicating with players more frequently.  We would ask about their lives outside of basketball. We would invite players to hang out outside of practice and school hours.  We started a Ryle basketball text thread and took advantage of Ryle boys basketball social media accounts to gain interest from fans.  We tried to establish our principles and terminology early so spring and summer workouts were more intense than they usually are.  Also, as a staff we promoted playing multiple sports so that there is a sense of balance in their lives.

JV: What long term changes are you in the process of making?

KB: We are in the process of renovating our locker room, starting a program website, and buying our players new practice gear.  When I got the job at Ryle everyone that I met told me, “Try to make playing basketball at Ryle fun again.”  I feel like our staff has done that.  I am also in the process of making a history and records binder for the Ryle boys’ basketball program.

JV: What do you do to improve as a coach? Read, watch film, drop in on practices?

KB: I used to attend coaching clinics and college practices regularly.  I still do it occasionally but now if I am watching a game on T.V. and I like an offensive set, I’ll rewind it and write it down.  I read a lot of coaching books and tweets to help keep my mind sharp.  When I was a younger coach, I used to think X’s and O’s won you games.  Now, I am firm believer that the psychology and relationships with players will win you games.  The old adage, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is true!

JV: You grew up in a small town, went to college in a big city, and now live in greater Cincinnati. Are you more of a big city or a small town person?

KB: I never thought of it that way, but I guess my life has gone in cycles.  I spent my childhood in a small town where high school sports were everything.  Then I moved to Nashville for 5 years where professional and college sports were everything.  Then I came back to Pendleton County for 7 years to teach and coach and, again, high school sports were everything.  And now, my wife and I live in Covington and I am working at the biggest High School in northern Kentucky.  I appreciate both small towns and a big city.  A balance is good I feel like!  My wife and I often talk about the importance of building relationships.  We have great friends from small towns and big cities and we are thankful for all of them.

JV: Tell me about your team bus driver at Pendleton County, who gets almost as much love on your social media accounts as baseball. Any good stories you care to share about him?

KB: You could never tell by looking at him, but Jimmy Gregg was quite the basketball player at Pendleton County in the early 1970’s!  He was the leading scorer on the 1971 10thRegion Championship team.  He and my dad played some softball together back in the 70’s and 80’s so I have known him for a long time.

When I was in middle school he drove our team bus for away games. Then when our class became freshmen and he started driving for our HS team.  Then I came back to coach and he was our bus driver again!!  

Before our district decided to seed the post-season, Jimmy would participate in the “blind draw” to see who we would draw in the 38thDistrict Tournament.  For good luck, I asked Jimmy to draw the pill out of the bottle.  He shows up to the draw wearing his lucky long underwear, favorite PC jacket and has a lucky buckeye in his pocket.  We got a great draw!!  Jimmy is the best!

Another funny story is summer of 2017 we attended WKU’s team camp in Bowling Green, KY (3 hours from Pendleton County).  We walk in Diddle Arena to register and get our camp information.  I run into some of my coaching buddies from western Kentucky that I rarely get to see. They all asked where Jimmy was.  I said, “He’s parking the bus, he will be in soon.”  As soon as he walked in, my friends left me to go talk to Jimmy! Haha!  He’s a legend!

JV: What advice would you give to young coaches starting out?

KB: Build as many connections as possible & the best way to get to your next job is to do as good as you can in your current job.

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