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. You can purchase copies of my aforementioned book for just $5 (75% off) through my publisher by clicking here. Thank you to University Heights Boys Head Coach Grant Shouse for the responses below.
JV: You attended UHA and played basketball there. Now you are the head coach. How has the culture of the basketball program changed from when you were a player to now?
GS: I did graduate from UHA in 1985 and started my Junior and Senior seasons. All three of my brothers were also Blazers. I made the All-District team my Senior year, the same year Hopkinsville won the Sweet 16. That was a long time ago. The school was still in its early years and was founded as a college prep day school, an alternative to the public school system. At that time, I feel like we were just striving to be competitive. Hopkinsville and Christian County were beating up on us in the 8th District tournament if we were unlucky enough to draw them. The District was decided by a draw and both Ft. Campbell and University Heights hoped to draw each other, but that didn’t happen often. So, we ultimately wanted to become competitive with the local schools and with so much talent in the town it didn’t take long for kids that weren’t getting much playing time at Hopkinsville or County, or had been cut, to start looking at UHA as a potential alternative to play ball. We also utilized some very talented foreign exchange players that helped transform the program overnight. That early success attracted even better local talent and the winning the state championship in 1992 took it to an even greater level. The 90’s produced NBA player Greg Buckner and many other Division 1 players. It is impossible to name them all. I also believe the start of the All “A” Classic and UHA’s early and overall dominance helped establish the brand of basketball UHA became known for. As a Coach at a school with such an established tradition of teams, coaches, and players, it’s about building on that success, adding to the legacy, and continuing to develop student-athletes to reach their goals and dreams in basketball as well as life. Knowing the history, I do have a unique perspective of the program and was ecstatic to add a 9th All “A” State championship to the coffers in 2019. UHA takes great pride in its academic success, but also its Boys Basketball success.
JV: Where does UHA fit into the three-school rivalry in Hopkinsville between Hopkinsville High, Christian County, and UHA? How has UHA traditionally been viewed in that three-horse race?
GS: I think early on UHA was viewed as a private school with privileged kids that was trying to start a successful basketball program and was a long way from doing it. I think once that transformation I mentioned above finally happened, and the way in which it happened, UHA was resented for it. So, we were the outsiders early on and then gradually became a respected rival of both Hopkinsville and Christian County. I think it went from a match race between two local public school programs to a year-in-year-out three horse race, with any of the three capable of beating each other.
JV: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being the only private school of the three in a town that churns out so many good high school players?
GS: The disadvantage would most certainly be just a lack of overall numbers. We are small, private school that offers several other sports and we encourage the sharing of those athletes. The kids can get spread thin. The low numbers also impact our Middle School program or feeder system. I think the biggest advantage is our academic program and how prepared our players are, not only on the basketball court, but also in the classroom. I think UHA offers the absolute best option for kids to reach the next level with our college prep curriculum and player development. I think our track record for getting guys qualified and to the next level speaks for itself. Most recently 2017 Tray Hollowell at Wofford and 2019 Kyky Tandy at Xavier.
JV: What is it about Hopkinsville that allows for so many stars to come out of such a small town?
GS: I think there are several things in Hopkinsville that allow for so many stars to come out of such a small town. First and foremost, the number of kids in town that play basketball. Basketball and being good at it carries a lot of weight in Hopkinsville. This competition starts at the Junior Pro level and kids here know at an early age that you must be good to make a team. Making a Middle school team is not a given at both of the public schools, where 60-plus kids try out. I also think that there is real generational talent, athleticism, and ability that has resulted in some really good basketball players over the years. In addition, the town has produced NBA players and kids see that it can happen here. The environment that those factors create, and the potential rewards, are ideal for producing elite talent.
JV: What is it like growing up in Hopkinsville?
GS: I think Hopkinsville is a great community made up of some good people that want the same things most people want for the place they live. Frankly, however, Hopkinsville also has a rough side to it. There is an attraction to the streets for a lot of kids. Whether that be for financial gain or for a sense of family. Like many places, crime, violence, and drugs are a reality in the community. That’s another reason why basketball is such an important part of the community. I know we all try to use the game’s opportunities to improve lives and as a reason to avoid the dangers of running the streets.
JV: What is district tournament week like when you have all three school in such a close proximity competing not only for the two regional spots, but also the bragging rights that come with winning the district championship? What is the mood like around town that week?
GS: I think any District tournament week is exciting because all three teams know that in those rival games you can throw the records out the window and anything can happen in a “win or go home” scenario. Obviously, with social media, the bragging rights and the “talk” leading up to the games can grow to a fever pitch. These games are usually well attended, and it brings out most of the town.
JV: Were you around when Scotty Hopson was at UHA? Describe the Scotty Hopson effect on both UHA and the city of Hopkinsville.
GS: In 2006 I was an Assistant Coach when Scotty Hopson was a Sophomore, so I had the pleasure of getting to watch him develop. You could tell he was full of potential then. He was growing (reached 6’7), long, athletic, and could get off the floor. This was about the time that the recruiting and ranking of high school players was starting to be covered as much as the season itself. I remember Scotty going to a LeBron James Camp either the summer before his Junior year or Senior year and really playing well. With his size, length, and skill set he was creating quite a “buzz.” It resulted in him being ranked something like 6th in the country, and he played in the McDonalds All American game and Nike Hoop Summit. So, as far as rankings go, Scotty set the bar high. He was a high-major recruit and with the attention and increased coverage it was difficult for the country to not know who he was. UHA and Hopkinsville have always been proud to call Scotty Hopson one of our own.
JV: Was it similar with Kyky?
GS: With Kyky, I think the changes in technology and social media made his “buzz” even greater. Although he was ranked lower than Scotty, Kyky was also a high-major recruit. Kyky scored over 3400 career points. He started 15 games as an 8th grader. Averaged 27.5 as a freshman and continued that trend throughout his career all while facing junk defenses and being double and triple-teamed. He also put winning above his numbers. He still got the numbers, but winning was very important to him and still is. I think with the videos and the viral sensations, we experienced something with Kyky that was unique to all of us including a few videos of him and his teammates that went viral. We had a highlight get picked up by House of Highlights that was viewed 1.5 million times! Kyky’s video of him dunking on the 7-footer from Hopkinsville also went viral and was viewed a similar number of times. Unfortunately, due to job constraints, I couldn’t coach Scotty after that Sophomore season. Fortunately, I got to coach Kyky Tandy for the duration. I witnessed him do some incredible things on the court and got to share some special moments with him and his teammates, the biggest being winning the All A State championship last season in which he was MVP. We also feel like he was Mr. Basketball.
JV: What is the atmosphere like at UHA when the Blazers make it to the Sweet 16 in 2018? A school that is so small, it must be a huge celebration. Take me through the week between winning the regional and departing school for Lexington for the Sweet 16.
GS: We won the region in 2018 over Christian County in front of a capacity crowd at Henderson County that included John Calipari, Travis Ford, Ray Harper, and other college coaches. It was a thrill for me to be a part of that game and to win it obviously took the feeling to another level. I think once it sinks in that your players, the fans, the coaches are all going to be at Rupp Arena, it is the ultimate coaching experience. I feel very fortunate to be able to experience both pursuits of the All “A” State tournament and the Sweet 16 on an annual basis. That week after winning the regional in 2018 was special. It had been 10 years since Scotty led UHA to Rupp. We had a special assembly, we had breakfasts and goodie bags provided by faculty, and we had our traditional school run-through where all the kids (K-12) come out of their classrooms to line the halls as the team runs through the building and the entire school get to be apart of the official send off.
JV: What can you expect when you face a Kerry Stovall-coached Christian County team?
GS: With Coach Stovall you can expect relentless pressure, run and jump, guys that are going to get after you on the defensive end, and a disciplined half-court offense if they don’t turn you over and score in transition first. He is always prepared and highly competitive.
JV: What Can you expect when you face a Larry Miller-coached Hopkinsville team?
GS: I have only coached against Coach Miller for one season, but he’s going to make sure the kids play the game the right way. Disciplined and deliberate on offense, while solid defensively. His kids will play hard and Larry has a lot of game experience. He makes adjustments.
JV: What could/did you expect when you faced a Tim Haworth-coached Hopkinsville team?
GS: With Coach Haworth, pressure, pressure, and more pressure. He will mix in a trapping 1-2-2 and likes to get out in transition and lets guys that are capable make plays. He is intense from the tip to the buzzer… and you are going to hear him all night!