Football coach from Ky. fought BP oil spill

David Cunningham working in La.

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJuly 4, 2010 

Normally as late spring turns to the heat of summer, David Cunningham is preparing to coach in the ensuing college football season.

This year, the Kentucky native has instead been doing something he would have never imagined.

In and around Slidell, La., he's been spending 12-hour days laying berms to help fight the BP oil spill.

"Every morning, we get on a crew boat, go out and put booms in areas that may be impacted by the spill," Cunningham said Thursday. "You're talking about 10-, 12-hour days, seven days a week, jumping into some really nasty water."

Cunningham's ties to Kentucky run as deep as the bluegrass. After growing up in Campbellsville, he played college football at Kentucky Wesleyan. He later served as defensive coordinator at KWC and was head football coach at the now-defunct Sue Bennett College in London from 1996-97.

His father, the late Lou Cunningham, was the longtime head basketball coach at what is now Campbellsville University. Phil Cunningham, David's brother, is a well-respected assistant on Rick Stansbury's basketball staff at Mississippi State.

David's path toward fighting an oil spill began last November when Nicholls State University — a school in Thibodaux, La., that competes in the Football Championship Series, the same level as Eastern Kentucky and Murray State — fired Jay Thomas as head football coach.

Cunningham, 45, was the special teams coach on Thomas' staff. When fellow assistant Kent Keith was named interim head coach, Cunningham stayed on at Nicholls State in hopes Keith would get the permanent job.

Instead, the school hired veteran Charlie Stubbs (who was the offensive coordinator at Louisville in 2007) as its head coach.

Cunningham found himself out of a job.

This spring, he was substitute teaching and looking for a coaching position when his brother told him about a former Mississippi State basketball manager who had landed employment with an environmental services company, ES&H, that was ramping up to fight the effects of the April 20 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Which is how a life-long college football coach found himself jumping in and out of boats and laying berm.

The berms — in this case, a man-made raised area designed to separate two places — "were fabric with styrofoam in it," Cunningham said. "The goal was to repel and absorb oil."

For working double-digit hours, seven days a week, Cunningham said he was clearing some $3,500 a week after taxes.

Most of his work was done in and around the Slidell Pearl River, Cunningham said.

"The oil hadn't really gotten there yet, but we heard it was getting close," he said.

This past week, Cunningham was back in Campbellsville visiting his mother, Barbara. He's still hoping to find a football coaching opportunity before this fall.

As for the mood he left behind in Louisiana, "a lot of people are down on BP," he said. "I'm sure there are two sides to every story and I don't know (BP's), but I know people are upset. With (Hurricane) Katrina and now this, that state is hurting."

Still no answers for Gay

Last summer, I told you about the anguish of former Louisville and Georgia assistant basketball coach Larry Gay and his family.

In July, 2008, Gay's then-30-year-old son, Anthony, was killed on Lexington's Walden Drive as a result of massive head injuries caused by a hit-and-run driver.

Immediately after the accident, there were no answers for the Gay family about what had happened to their son.

Last summer, when I wrote about their pain, there was still no resolution.

This year, Larry Gay says that remains the case. No one knows who ran over Anthony.

The Lexington police "have had leads," Larry Gay said Friday, "but nothing has panned out. Obviously, the longer you go without knowing, the tougher it's going to be" to ever solve the case.

Gay, a former Clark County basketball star who played on Florida State's 1972 NCAA Tournament runner-up team, says he and his wife, Gayle, still attend support groups with other parents who have lost children.

"For me at least, with what happened to Anthony, with the not knowing, (the emotional pain) just gets worse," Gay said.

"I know someone knows what happened to my son. We don't even care about any criminal (charges), that's up to the system. I just wish somebody would come forward and give my family peace."

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