by BOB WHITE
Kentucky lost one of its most successful and most beloved high school basketball coaches when Bobby Keith of Clay County died of a heart attack on Oct. 6.
Keith, 75, was one of a kind., a coach from the old school who believed that hard work and dedication could produce winning teams as well as talent. Keith, as much as anything, got more out of his personnel than any coach in the state, simply because he taught the game as well as he coached it.
“Objectively, he was the fifth winningest coach of all-time, but there was never a coach who loved his school and community more than Bobby Keith,” said Bellarmine University coach Scotty Davenport, who was a friendly rival of Keith and Clay County when he coached Ballard High in Louisville.
Julian Tackett, comissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, said in a radio interview that Keith “revolutionized and modernized the game of basketball in Eastern Kentucky” in his 29 years as coach of the Tigers.
Keith, who grew up in Manchester and played his high school ball at Clay County, guided the Tigers to the 13th Region title and a berth in the KHSAA Sweet 16 state tournament a record 18 titmes before retiring as coach in l999.
“It goes back to Bobby transferring the passion he had to his players,” Davenport said.
Clay County was at its best in the 1980’s when the Tigers reached the state championship game three times in a span of four years, during which time Keith let his All-State point guard, Richie Farmer, control the tempo of the game.
Keith reached the pinnacle of his success when Clay County nipped Ballard 76-73 in overtime to win the 1987 championship game in Lexington’s Rupp Arena. That win made Clay County the first moutain school to win it all since 1961 when a talemt-loaded Ashland Blazer emerged victorious
Keith was proud to represent the mountains. Tackett, in fact, said it would be accurate to call him “the Pride of the Mountains.”
Following past teams that won it from regions 12-16 – Inez in 1954, Hazard in ’55, Carr Creek in ’56 and Pulaski County in ’86– Keith said after his title victory, “We’re taking the title back to Eastern Kentucky where it belongs.”
The fiery Keith was into his team’s games as much as his players. He always wore a long-sleeve shirt and a tie that usually soon became loose around his neck, and part of his shrrt was hanging out over his belt.
Keith almost won a second straight championship, but his Tigers lost to Ballard 88-79 in the 1988 final at Freedom Hall in Louisville. The Tigers found some consolation in that game when Farmer put on an unbelievable shootijng performance, scoring a final-game record of 51 points in his last high school contest.
Those Clay County-Ballard games were classics. The rivalry created a mutual respect from both the coaches and players from each school. Keith thought highly of Ballard’s star players– Allan Houston, Mark Bell and Kenneth Martin, coach Scotty Davenport. Likewise, Davenport couldn’t heap enough praise on the Tigers’ Farmer and his teammates.
“We played those three games– Ballard nipped Clay County in a Louisville Invitational Tournament semifinal game in January of 1988– before 45,000 fans,” Davenport said. “Our players were from the inter-city and their players were from the mountains, and the games were played with much respect for each other.”
After the ’88 final, Davenpport said he took his Ballard team up to Clay County nine straight times for a pre-season scrimmage in a gym where the Tigers seldom lost.
“We won up there once,” Davenport said. “When we won, Keith counted it as a scrimmage. When they won, he added it to his long winning streak at home.”
Keith’s team lost its first chance at a state crown when the Tigers bowed to Hopkinsville 65-64 in 1985 championship game..
Overall, Keith’s teams compiled a 767-125 record at Clay County. He was so highly thought of he and Farmer were both in the first class of inductees for the High School Basketball Hall of Fame started by the Kentucky Association of Basketball Coaches in 2011.
Davenport attended the visitation for Keith that was held in the Bobby Keith Gym on Oct. 9 in Manchester. Keith’s wife paid Davenport a huge compliment then when she told him, “Bobby followed everything you did.”
Three of Clay County’s players on the 1987 and ’88 teams were pallbearers at Keith’s funeral – Richie Farmer, his brother, Russ, and Russ Chadwell.
It’s too bad Keith won’t be around when the Sweet 16 state tournament celebrates its 100th anniversary next March in Rupp Arena, but he certainly will be remembered then. Keith always attended the Sweet 16 even after he retired.
“Bobby was a whale of a coach,” Davenport said. “He was a great teacher. He taught his players the way he thought the game should be played. There was none better. He was the best.”