Lawrence County: Tiny county growing a football coaching tree

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 5, 2011 

  • Lawrence County

    Ten things to know about Lawrence County:

    County's birth: Dec. 14, 1821 (the 69th of Kentucky's 120 counties in order of formation)

    Named for: Captain James Lawrence, commander of the U.S.S. Chesapeake during the War of 1812

    Population: 16,573 (2009 U.S. Census Bureau estimate)

    Demographics: Whites 16,331; Other/multi-race 107; Hispanics 84; Blacks 73; American Indian/Alaska Native 48; Asian 13; Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander 1.

    County seat: Louisa (138 miles east of Lexington)

    2008 U.S. presidential election: McCain 3,503; Obama 2,036

    From the Louisa jail to the U.S. Supreme Court: Born Jan. 22, 1890, in the Louisa jail (his dad was jailer), Fred M. Vinson went on to a political and legal career that carried him to the highest ranks of American government. The Centre College graduate served in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat. He was a supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal economic agenda and known for his skill at compromise. In 1945, President Harry Truman — in whose weekly poker game Vinson was a regular — appointed the Kentuckian U.S. Treasury Secretary. In 1946, Truman nominated Vinson as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Vinson served in that role until Sept. 8, 1953, when he suffered a massive heart attack and died. He was buried in his native Lawrence County.

    'Dead Fred': Though former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson died in 1953, to this day he rarely misses a major home athletics event at his college alma mater, Centre. In a tradition that began soon after Vinson's death, students in Centre's Phi Delta Theta fraternity take a large framed portrait of Vinson — the "Dead Fred" — to football and men's basketball games. According to legend, when things go badly for the Colonels in a ball game, Dead Fred is said to shed tears (though some claim it may actually be rain drops).

    Country boy at heart: Singer Ricky Skaggs was born in Cordell in Lawrence County on July 18, 1954. A musical prodigy, Skaggs began performing at age 6 and early in his career performed with music notables such as Ralph Stanley, J.D. Crowe, Emmylou Harris and Keith Whitley. In the 1980s, Skaggs became a major country music star, with hits including Heartbroke, Highway 40 Blues and Country Boy. In 1985, he was the Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year. Later in his career, Skaggs has been more identified with gospel and Bluegrass music. He has won 14 Grammy awards.

    A Cat of their own: Lawrence County High School has never played in either a boys' or girls' basketball Sweet Sixteen. However, the school's current girls' basketball coach, has state tournament experience. Sarah Elliott starred on the Jackson County team that finished state runner-up in 2002. The 6-foot-6 Elliott went on to become a standout at the University of Kentucky where she scored 1,502 points and started at center for UK's 2006 NCAA Tournament team.

    Mark Story

  • A STORY FOR EVERY COUNTY

    ONE COLUMNIST'S PURSUIT OF KENTUCKY'S MOST COMPELLING STORIES

  • About this series

    This column is the 74th in a series that looks at the sporting life throughout the Herald-Leader's 78-county circulation area. One county will be selected at random on a regular basis, and Mark Story will seek out the best sports story in that county.

    Coming next: Woodford County

Together, the four shared — three directly — in the most memorable night in the sports history of Lawrence County.

Nov. 21, 1997. Breathitt County High School brought a 42-game football winning streak to Louisa for a Class 2A football playoff game with upstart Lawrence County.

By the time the Bobcats left, there had been an epic Lawrence rally, a post-game scuffle and the goal posts had been torn down.

In Lawrence's 36-28 victory, Phillip Ratliff served as the defensive coordinator for then-Lawrence County head coach Chuke Williams. Wide receiver Gerad Parker caught two touchdown passes. Jason Michael was the starting QB for the Bulldogs.

Then an eighth-grader, Dontae Wright was watching the game in a brand-new, North Carolina-blue jacket — which he ruined with joyful diving into the post-game muck on the field amid the raucous victory celebration.

Said Michael: "That's a night I'll never forget."

Said Parker: "For our county, that night was everything."

What Michael and Parker, Ratliff and Wright have done since is far more improbable.

Would you believe that little Lawrence County has produced its own coaching tree with branches that reach not only into college football but the NFL?

Ratliff is the tight ends coach at his alma mater, Marshall. Parker, the former University of Kentucky wide receiver, is passing game coordinator at Tennessee-Martin.

At the tender age of 26, Wright coaches the defensive line for head coach Terry Bowden at North Alabama.

After serving as quarterbacks coach with the San Francisco 49ers last season, Michael — the QB of Western Kentucky University's 2002 I-AA national championship team — was just hired to coach tight ends by the San Diego Chargers.

How does a rural county of some 16,573 end up with four guys climbing the ladder in such a hyper-competitive world?

This is how.

The story starts with Ratliff.

During the late 1980s, the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder was The Man in Lawrence County, an old-fashioned three-sport star.

No one in his family had ever earned a college degree, Ratliff said. "My mom and dad, it was a very strong Christian home and they pretty much demanded that I was going to go to college," he said. "Financially, the only way I could do that was to get a scholarship."

He did, to play football at Marshall.

In Huntington, Ratliff thrived. He became a two-time I-AA All-American as an offensive lineman and was a captain of the Thundering Herd's 1992 national title team. The next year, Ratliff started his coaching career by serving as a student assistant at Marshall.

Back in Louisa, the impact of his success at Marshall was profound.

Said Parker: "It meant so much to see someone from where you were succeeding like that. Made you think you could do it, too."

Of all the Lawrence County coaching tree, Michael would seem the most destined to coach. His father, Eddie, was a high school football coach before he became a longtime school administrator.

Yet at WKU, Jason studied civil engineering.

In Bowling Green, Michael became friends with a man who was a big University of Tennessee supporter. One day, the man called Michael on the phone, said he had a UT sports notable visiting and invited the Western quarterback to come meet him.

That was Michael's introduction to Phillip Fulmer.

The meeting eventually led to Fulmer offering the WKU quarterback an entry-level shot as assistant strength coach in 2003. The next season, Michael was UT's graduate assistant working with defense and special teams.

Even while establishing himself at the lowest levels of college football coaching, Michael had an insight vital across nearly all careers: The key to advancement is networking.

"I would go to the Senior Bowl and the (NFL Draft) Combine and try to meet people, get my name out," he said.

A pair of NFL assistants, Don Martindale and Rob Ryan, who had worked at WKU at various times helped him break into pro football.

Today, Michael has worked on the staffs of the NFL's Raiders, Jets, 49ers and now Chargers. That's in addition to the year (2008) he spent coaching tight ends for Fulmer at UT.

He's 31 years old.

"Jason Michael is on track to be an NFL head coach," said former Lawrence County football coach Billy Goldsmith.

Gerad Parker's first sports love was basketball.

At small high schools, the success of any team depends on getting all the best athletes to play. When Parker got to Lawrence County High, the school's veteran quarterback, Michael, offered him a deal.

"I told Gerad if he would come out for football, I'd come out for basketball," Michael said.

Parker became one of the most prolific wide receivers ever to play high school football in Kentucky. He caught the eye of Hal Mumme, who gave him a scholarship to UK.

In Lexington, Parker was never a star, but he did become a contributing player.

By the time his playing days were winding down, Parker was unsure of a career path. He was flirting with the idea of going to Nashville and trying to become a country singer.

His Kentucky wide receivers coach, Joker Phillips, instead asked Parker if he had ever thought about coaching. One thing led to another, and Rich Brooks eventually hired the former Cat as a grad assistant.

Nevertheless, Parker's career journey did eventually lead to Tennessee — for a job coaching at UT-Martin.

To become a football standout at Lawrence County, Dontae Wright surmounted more obstacles than any child deserves.

"I grew up without a dad," he said. "My mom died while I was in school."

From youth sports on, the coaches who worked with Wright filled a void.

"I've known since middle school, I wanted to be a coach," Wright said. "The guys I had that worked with me were such a big influence on me, I wanted to be that for other kids."

Wright earned a football scholarship to Miami (Ohio); as a senior, he was both a starting linebacker and team captain.

When his playing career ended, UK had an opening for a grad assistant on the defensive side of the ball. Wright had a connection in Lexington.

"I went in to see Coach Brooks, told him about Dontae, and just said if you bring him in for an interview, you'll hire him," Parker said.

Brooks brought Wright in and interviewed him.

And hired him.

There are basically only two kinds of coaches. Those who are head men and those who want to be.

Said Michael: "Someday, sure, I want to be a head coach."

Said Ratliff: "My goal is to be a head coach."

Noted Parker: "I want to be a head coach."

And Wright: "I'd like to be the head coach some day at the University of Kentucky. Or at my alma mater, Miami."

Yet the four guys from the same small Kentucky town working their way up the coaching rungs have another goal all their own: being together again on the same side — just as they were in 1997 when Breathitt County's 42-game winning streak ended.

"We talk about that all the time," Parker said.

Said Ratliff: "One of us gets a head coaching job and gets the band back together. Whether that would really work, obviously, a lot would have to go into that. But it would really be something if we could pull it off."

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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