Bernadette Mattox recalls making mark on game at Kentucky

The Knoxville (Tenn.) News-SentinelJuly 3, 2013 

When the phone call came to her office in the Georgia women's basketball office, Bernadette Mattox thought it was a mistake.

She assumed the phone message she had previously left with a Kentucky women's assistant coach about scheduling had mistakenly ended up on Tubby Smith's desk.

Why else would a Kentucky men's assistant coach on Rick Pitino's staff be calling a Georgia assistant women's coach?

"I said, 'Coach Smith, I think they gave my message to the wrong person,'" Mattox recalled last week. "He just chuckled."

That 1990 phone call was no mistake.

Smith had life-changing news to share: Pitino wanted to add a woman to his coaching staff at Kentucky and that woman was Mattox, who learned the game in the little Loudon County community of Philadelphia, Tenn.

Mattox has seen virtually every angle of basketball, from a 3-on-3 player at Loudon High School to her most recent stint as an assistant coach in the WBNA.

She was Coach Andy Landers' building block at Georgia in 1979-81 as a player and later as his recruiter. She was head women's coach at Kentucky for eight years.

But as she awaits induction into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame on July 11, Mattox is best known nationally for her four years as an assistant for Pitino as he rebuilt Kentucky from the shambles of NCAA probation.

"Why me?" Mattox said 23 years later, "I don't know. Tubby just said they talked about some of the top recruiting coaches in the country."

She was still Bernadette Locke when she took Pitino's offer. She would soon marry Vincent Mattox.

By 1990, Bernadette had established herself as a recruiter for Landers at Georgia.

But coaching men? At Kentucky?

"It was a no-brainer," Mattox said. "I wanted to learn from the best and at that time Rick was one of the top coaches in the game."

Landers hated to lose his top recruiter, but he was confident she was up to the challenge.

"If there was going to be a woman assistant coach in major (men's) college basketball," Landers said, "it made perfect sense that person should be Bernadette."

It was Landers who put Mattox on the road to her career.

She was playing 3-on-3 basketball at Loudon when he recruited her to Roane State Community College. Since she only played on the offensive side of the half-court line, Landers knew she could score, but had never seen her play defense. He wound up pleasantly surprised.

When he got the offer to take over a desolate program at Georgia two years later, he brought her with him for two more years.

"I refer to Bernadette as the first lady of Georgia basketball," Landers said. "She meant everything."

That went for recruiting too, once she joined his staff. Hall of Famer Teresa Edwards was one of her catches.

Pitino arrived at Kentucky in 1989 in the wake of NCAA scandal. A year later, he made the radical move of adding Mattox to a staff that already included future head-coaching stars Smith, Billy Donovan and Herb Sendek.

"They were helpful and considerate," Mattox said. "They were all phenomenal."

The players were also receptive. She said there was never resistance, even when she ran individual drills.

"And I'm so grateful for that," she said. "(John) Pelphrey, Richie Farmer, (Deron) Feldhaus, Sean Woods, it was, 'Yes, Ma'am.' I was fortunate to be there at a time when we had good people."

Pitino certainly didn't cut her any slack. She performed all duties except on-the-road recruiting. The gig ended one year after UK's return to the Final Four when she decided it was time to have a baby.

"I can't say enough how much I appreciate Rick taking a risk and (athletic director) C.M. (Newton) agreeing with it," she said.

After Vincent Jr. was born, Mattox returned to UK first as an administrator, then as women's head coach from 1995-2003.

In 2004, she went to the Connecticut Sun of the WNBA as an assistant and stepped down after last season to be around for her son's senior year of high school.

Now that her son is off to college at Murray State, there might be another chapter to write.

"I'd like to get back into administration," she said. "I enjoyed that part. Coaching? I won't ever say never."

Who knows? Pitino might need her help again at Louisville.

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