Last year, the year he spent a one-year sabbatical away from Kentucky basketball, Happy Osborne walked into the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament and was greeted by some officials from his home state.
Welcome to the big time, they told him.
"There were 800 people there," Osborne recalled.
Thursday, one year later, Osborne wheeled — more on that later — into the first round of the KHSAA Boys' State Tournament and this time there were 13,694 on a weekday afternoon to watch Osborne's Montgomery County Indians knock off Warren Central 71-63 in Rupp Arena.
Why, there were way more than 800 on hand just from Mount Sterling — "Whirlin' Sterlin'," Osborne said. "There's no place like it." — to watch their beloved Indians make their first Boys' State Tournament appearance since 1995 and just the second in school history.
The man who helped get them to the state tournament was the man who couldn't stay away from the state. In 31 years at Georgetown College, 15 of them as a head coach, Osborne became a near legend, taking the Tigers to multiple NAIA national tournaments, winning it in 1998.
Uneasy about the direction of Georgetown's future, Osborne surprisingly resigned his post in 2011 to become associate head coach at Tennessee Tech under his former assistant Steve Payne. That lasted but a year before Osborne got the itch to come back home.
He landed at Montgomery County, known for being a good 10th Region basketball program with tremendous facilities — "Our second gym is better than any in the OVC," said Osborne — that kept losing to great players.
"You think about what Bart (Rison) went through, what Keith Greisser went through," said Osborne of his predecessors. "They caught Chris Lofton. They caught Robbie Stenzel. They caught (Vinny) Zollo. They caught Darius Miller. They caught Trevor Setty. The list goes on and on and on."
But this year the Indians had that player in Omar Prewitt, the 6-foot-6 William and Mary signee who averaged 23.3 points and who scored 29 in Montgomery's win Thursday.
"I think Omar Prewitt is a lot tougher, more mature kid — I don't think, I know — than he was last May," Osborne said. "That's not a credit to me, that's a credit to him because he wants to win. And he knew that's what he had to do to make those changes to win."
Ah, surely Osborne deserves some of the credit. Prewitt said the former college coach brought more of a college-type program to Mount Sterling. He said Osborne intensified conditioning, but made it fun.
"His practices are very intense and his expectations are high, but Happy has a really unique ability to push kids and also pat them on the back," said Prewitt's mother, Lea Wise-Prewitt, a former University of Kentucky star who is doing state tournament games for the radio (just not her son's games) this week. "I think you have to do that on the high school level. Those kids have to know that when you do something you're going to get a smile. And he has the ability to do that."
For his part, Osborne admitted it was an adjustment, coaching younger kids. He couldn't do all the things he did at the college level, but then, he said, maybe some of the things he did at the college level weren't always the right things to do.
"It's pure, for lack of a better word, just how bad (these kids) want to play," Osborne said Thursday. "I believe in them totally. No matter what happens, I believe in them totally. I hope they feel the same way."
When they beat Scott High School to earn the Indians' first trip to Rupp in 18 years, the town went nuts. And so did the coach.
"I spent my whole life thinking Kansas City was it," said Osborne of the site of the NAIA Tournament. "In Kansas City, there's 1,800 to 2,000 people. You don't play for the people that are there, but (this is) a tremendous experience. It means everything to me.
"My dad was a high school coach for a while. I look at guys like Danny Adams, who coached at Magoffin County, who was a tremendous coach. And there are so many good coaches that didn't get here. So I don't take getting here lightly."
He was forced to take it sitting down, however. Three weeks ago, Osborne slipped on some steps — "I would say I tripped on an Ale-8 bottle, but I've learned never to lie to the media," he joked — and tore his quadriceps, an injury that has required him to use a combination chair/walker to get around.
Still, it was a pretty nice view, watching Montgomery not only get "here" but moving on "here" to Friday's quarterfinals.
"I didn't come here to be put out first game," said Omar Prewitt. "I want to play some more games."
"I'll tell you this," Osborne said, "we played Kentucky (at Rupp) when I was at Georgetown, and this was a lot more fun. It's more fun to win."
John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com