From 1969 through 1975, the home towns of the teams who won the Kentucky boys’ Sweet Sixteen were mind-numbingly repetitive:
Louisville, Louisville, Louisville, Owensboro, Louisville, Louisville, Louisville.
In a state that had long savored its small-town basketball traditions, this big-city dominance of Kentucky’s one-class high school basketball state tournament was becoming oppressive. So there was a vote set for after the 1976 state tourney to gauge whether the commonwealth’s high schools wanted to end the one-size-fits-all Sweet Sixteen.
The times called out for a small school as hero. Improbably, one arose.
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Before 1976, Edmonson County had never played in a Sweet Sixteen. The school has not sent a team back to the state tournament since.
Yet over four days in March 1976, Coach Bo Davenport’s Edmonson County Wildcats — a team that had no player go on to play NCAA Division I college basketball — would win one of the most unlikely state championships ever.
“Now, sometimes when I think about what we did, it feels like it was all a dream,” Kevin Clemmons, the team’s starting point guard, said last week.
In this year when the Boys’ Sweet Sixteen will celebrate its centennial, it is worth reflecting: There likely would not be a pending 100th boys’ state tournament had Edmonson County not won the 59th renewal.
A coach seeks redemption
As the 1975-76 basketball season began, Coach Bowman “Bo” Davenport was on a drive for vindication.
From 1950 until 1974, Davenport had been a fixture at tiny Clarkson High School in Grayson County. Though odds of making a state tournament at Clarkson were long, Davenport loved the tough-minded country boys he got to coach there. Until “progress” intervened, he seemed content to spend his career there.
For the 1974-75 school year, Clarkson, Leitchfield and Caneyville merged to form the consolidated Grayson County High School. Davenport became the head man at the new school and led Grayson County to the regional tournament in year one.
He got canned anyway.
“They told me I couldn’t coach anymore,” Davenport — who died in 2003 — said in 1996. As Davenport told the story, he got a call about a head coaching vacancy at Edmonson County only hours after he was let go at Grayson County. “You could say I got fired and hired in the same day,” he liked to say.
Isolated from I-65 by the Mammoth Cave National Park, Edmonson County was an insular farming community that took pride in the sports teams of its small (enrollment of some 450 in 1975-76) high school in Brownsville.
Before Davenport arrived, Edmonson basketball had been known for a high-octane offense.
“We played games in the 80s, even the 90s,” forward Aaron Goad says. “But (Davenport) had a system. It was designed to yield shots from five, six places on the floor. You worked the ball around until one of those places (yielded an open shot). If you shot from ‘not one of those places,’ he’d let you know about it — and you wouldn’t like it. He was tough.”
Not ‘all deer-eyed’
High school basketball in Kentucky was at a high ebb in 1976.
Defending state champion Male, led by stars Darrell Griffith and Bobby Turner, didn’t even make it back to the State Tournament in ’76. Shawnee led by future NBA forward Durand Macklin did make it. So did Ballard with future NBA guard Jeff Lamp.
There were no future NBA players on the roster at Edmonson County, but there was talent.
Center Phil Rich, 6-4, 235-pounds, brought a football player’s strength to the pivot. At one forward, Goad, a 6-3 senior, had the passing skill of a former point guard.
The season began with senior Jeff Doyle starting at the other forward; his cousin, 6-3 sophomore Mark Hennion, had claimed the spot by tournament time.
A product of one of Edmonson County’s few black families, senior Chester Bethel was the shooting guard. Sophomore Clemmons, the son of a former Edmonson head coach, ran the point.
Of the 16 teams that qualified for the 1976 Sweet Sixteen in Freedom Hall, Edmonson County was ranked 14th in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings.
“We could have gone up there all ‘deer-eyed,’” Rich said last week. “But, as naive as this sounds, we really never thought about the big picture. We just went to Louisville and kept trying to win our next game.”
Edmonson shot 61.7 percent and beat Betsy Layne 77-72 in the opening round. In the quarterfinals, Rich overpowered Harrison County for 19 points and 12 rebounds in a 61-57 win.
Referring to his husky center afterward, Davenport told the media “We took it to the mountain.” Phil “The Mountain” Rich had gained a nickname for life.
In the semifinals against Shelby County, Edmonson was in trouble. The Wildcats were clinging to a 51-50 lead in the final minute when a dribbling Bethel lost the ball out of bounds.
“I dribbled right onto a dead spot in the floor,” Bethel recalled last week. “I bounced the ball and it didn’t come up, it went straight sideways.”
As Shelby County inbounded the ball, Clemmons left his man and leaped into the passing lane. He stole the ball and hit a cutting Bethel who drained a jump shot for a 53-50 lead with 34 seconds left. That play sent Cinderella to the state finals with a 53-52 win.
Meanwhile, the opposite bracket was in chaos. In the quarterfinals, Ballard was upset by Henry Clay, and Shawnee taken down by Christian County. In the semis, Christian County nipped Henry Clay 68-67.
Anyone with a tie to Edmonson County who was alive in 1976 can tell you even now exactly where they were the night of the state title game.
Ex-University of Kentucky baseball coach Keith Madison — Edmonson County class of 1969 — was driving his car around Lake Wales, Fla., where he was then working, with his sister Sharon in tow. They were trying to find a high point where the car radio could pick up the championship game broadcast on 50,000-watt WHAS-AM.
“We found a hilltop where WHAS would come and go,” Madison said. “I’ll never forget how nervous we were. We sat there straining to hear what was happening.”
What was happening was Edmonson County, riddling a tiring Christian County press for layup after layup, was winning going away, 74-52.
A little school from rural Kentucky had reclaimed the state championship.
Sweet Sixteen saved
The result of the vote — should Kentucky continue with one-class basketball? — was announced in June 1976.
By a margin of 119-110, the schools voted in favor of keeping the Sweet Sixteen.
“I don’t know that you can say it was all Edmonson County, but I think you have to say it was a big factor,” says Mike Embry, author of the book “March Madness: The Kentucky High School Basketball Tournament.” “I think what Edmonson did quieted the talk of class basketball pretty significantly.”
For 41 years, the 1976 Edmonson County players have relished life as “the boys who saved the Sweet Sixteen.”
“I know a lot of people credit us — and some people blame us,” Goad says with a laugh. “But winning one true state championship is so much more meaningful than being ‘5A state champions’ or ‘2A state champions’ would ever be.”
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Kentucky will celebrate the 100th year of the boys’ state high school basketball tournament when the Sweet Sixteen plays out in Rupp Arena from March 15-19, 2017. The Herald-Leader is getting the party started a little earlier.
Today’s column by Mark Story on Edmonson County’s title in 1976 and Josh Moore’s feature on the 1956 state tournament are the fourth and fifth articles in a series we’re publishing in the newspaper and on Kentucky.com over the course of the 2016-17 high school basketball season. Visit Kentucky.com to read previous installments of the Sweetest Century series.
Our coverage examines the significance of the tournament to our state’s history, revisits memorable games, champions and moments and looks at where the event goes from here. We’re exploring the joy, the heartbreak and the social impact of the event and recalling the teams and players every Kentuckian should know about.
We hope you are enjoying it.
1976 state tournament
At Freedom Hall in Louisville
Shelby Co. 74, Apollo 68
Paducah Tilghman 75, McCreary Co. 60
Edmonson Co. 77, Betsy Layne 72
Harrison Co. 75, Green Co. 54
Henry Clay 74, Holmes 65
Ballard 95, Hazard 67
Christian Co. 67, Ashland Blazer 63
Shawnee 85, Clay Co. 57
Shelby Co. 64, Paducah Tilghman 54
Edmonson Co. 61, Harrison Co. 57
Henry Clay 77, Ballard 74
Christian Co. 75, Shawnee 69
Edmonson Co. 53, Shelby Co. 52
Christian Co. 68, Henry Clay 67
Edmonson Co. 74, Christian Co. 52