Lexington Christian Academy’s football team practiced at the University of Kentucky’s Nutter Field House on Wednesday night. Its offensive coordinator, Joey Thacker, showed up about 30 minutes after the team started running drills at 7:30 p.m.
He had a good excuse; he was busy with the girls’ basketball team at Franklin County High School, where he’s not only been the head coach since 2003 but he’s also led the team to back-to-back appearances in the Sweet Sixteen championship game. The Flyers practiced after school and then held a fundraiser at Pizza Inn on Wednesday.
“It gets hectic at times,” Thacker said of balancing his two coaching gigs. “There’s no other way to put it.”
Splitting time in Fayette County and Franklin County is a cake walk compared to some of the juggling Thacker once did. The Elkhorn City native began his coaching career at his alma mater as an assistant boys’ basketball coach under Randy McCoy. He started assisting the football team at Elkhorn City in 1996, the same year he took the baseball head coaching job there. (A fun piece of Thacker trivia? His first region title as a head coach in any sport came on the baseball diamond in 1997.)
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He took the football head coaching job at Frankfort High School in 1999. Thacker started assisting the boys’ basketball team under then-head coach Scott Chalk that same year, then in 2001 he was asked to take the reins of the girls’ basketball team at Frankfort.
In addition to leading the girls, Thacker still wanted to help with the boys’ games during the winter despite dedicating his fall to the football team.
“A custodian would drive me from the girls’ practice to the boys’ games and from the boys’ practice to the girls’ games in the superintendent’s car just so I could do both boys’ and girls’ basketball,” Thacker said with a grin.
When he took the Franklin County girls’ job he also began assisting under Flyers football coach Donnie Walker. It was during that time he met former UK offensive coordinator Tony Franklin (now in the same role at Middle Tennessee State) and began to learn Franklin’s up-tempo spread system, which Thacker used to help Franklin County lead the state in scoring in 2012 and earn big-time attention for receiver Ryan Timmons (who played at UK) and quarterback Logan Woodside (now at Toledo).
Thacker’s wife, Matosha, was diagnosed with rectal cancer in 2012 and he stepped away from football for more than a year after the Flyers’ season ended. In 2014 he got a call from Walker, who said Lexington Christian’s new head coach, Ethan Atchley, was interested in having Thacker call plays for the Eagles. He wasn’t sure if he was ready to step back on the turf.
“‘Well you better be making your mind up, ’cause they’re on their way to talk to you,’” Thacker said he was told.
With the blessing of his wife and Franklin County, Thacker became a part-time Eagle.
“I’ve learned as much about football and coaching kids from him as anybody I’ve ever been around,” said Atchley, now in his fourth season leading LCA. “ ... One of the things I took away immediately was he was prepared for that first meeting in a very definitive, direct way. ‘This is how I believe we can be successful and this is how we can do some things.’ And on top of it, he was a head coach at a young age like I was.”
Lexington Christian leads the state in scoring at 52.1 points per game this season. It also led it at the end of 2016, a year in which the Eagles had their first undefeated regular season and reached the region finals. They fell to Danville, against whom they’ll seek revenge Friday night.
The Eagles are talented, but they don’t boast the likes of Timmons and Woodside. Atchley gives ample credit to Thacker for putting LCA’s players — many of whom are playing both sides of the ball — in positions to maximize their effectiveness on offense.
That’s perhaps been most evident over the last two weeks, when the Eagles have had to call upon sophomore quarterback Josh McClurg to man the offense after senior starter Logan Nieves tore an ACL in the first half against Leslie County in the first round of the playoffs.
“We lost an absolute warrior in Logan Nieves,” Thacker said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever coached anybody like him in terms of how hard he plays every play.”
McClurg, who was already getting time in the defensive backfield, has filled the void as well as LCA could have hoped. Nieves’ production — 2,110 yards and 22 TDs through the air with 1,008 yards and 15 TDs on the ground — was incredible, but the Eagles remain confident with McClurg, who’s 20-of-32 passing this season for 271 yards and four TDs with three scores on the ground.
“You sit in a meeting with him for three hours on Sunday and he answers every question right,” Thacker said. “Now, whether that transfers on Friday night at 7:30, that’s yet to be seen, but it’s transferred the last two Friday nights.”
The toughest part of nailing down LCA’s offense is the verbage, Thacker said, especially at the quarterback position. But the break-neck tempo and wearing down of opposing defenses makes it fun and helps everyone get involved.
“When people are watching Tim Couch throw for six, seven touchdowns against Louisville, all they see is the ball go up in the air,” Thacker said. “But for three seconds prior to that, there’s a lot going on that the kids really have to buy into and learn. And we’ve been fortunate enough to do that here.”
Thacker has lived in Central Kentucky for nearly two decades, but his Eastern Kentucky accent and attitude are unfazed.
“He brings a lot of morale to the team,” said Caelyn Lebryk, who leads LCA with seven TD catches this season. “You might be having somewhat of a bad practice or something and he’ll say something that just lightens up the practice. His sarcasm and Southern humor’s just really funny.”
Lebryk said the players refer to some of the things their offensive coordinator says as “Thackerisms.” They get a kick out of them.
“One of my favorite ones is ‘You’ve gotta be able to stand on your head and gargle peanut butter at the same time,’ talking to us about being able to do everything,” Lebryk said. “He says, ‘There’s two things that don’t survive in November: Dogs that run in the road and teams that can’t run the football.’”
That wit is ever-present in Thacker’s demeanor. He wants to win as much as anyone, but he’s going to have fun while trying to do it. A “Thackerism” he’s used on social media to motivate his girls at Franklin County this season? #YouCantFeedLettuceToALion
Growing up and coaching in the mountains gave him a “can-do” outlook toward athletics and life in general.
“I think you just grow up there and you learn to figure it out,” Thacker said. “And I think that’s one heck of a trait to have, is when you are taught by some people how to be tough and how to withstand and go after what you want.”
Being by Matosha’s side as she battled cancer made him not just relish the success he’s had in athletics, but the grind and sacrifice it takes to achieve it.
“I’ve spent a lot of time raising other people’s kids and she’s kind of raised ours basically by herself for 20 years,” said Thacker, who has three daughters. “You’re just lucky you get to do it because you’ve seen somebody have 15 surgeries in 10 months and fight something for two years. She’s tougher than me, I can tell you that.”
‘This is what has to get done’
All kids value routine, Thacker thinks. The structure and demands for coaching a football team consisting of all boys and guiding a basketball team full of girls are the same. How you demand things can differ, but not always, he said.
“You know, most kids — and I’ve been doing this a long time — most kids want that structure and they want to know what the expectation is,” Thacker said. “And I think sometimes we just leave a bunch of stuff to chance with high school athletes instead of saying ‘This is what has to get done.’ And I think that’s the biggest thing that’s sort of consistent across both.”
Thacker has been providing that structure to boys and girls in Kentucky and elsewhere for a long time. He travels during the summer with Walker to help install the spread offense at high schools and colleges eager to use it. The nice thing about those trips, he joked, is not having to sell cookie dough or speak to an angry parent at the end.
He prefaced it by calling it a cliché, but the most rewarding aspects of his career have been the relationships he’s built and the development he’s watched hundreds of kids undergo.
“We have people on this football team that four years ago I’m not sure they would’ve played half the snaps, and now they start every down on one of the better offenses in the state,” Thacker said. “In the end, do they get better under you? Is there a sense that you helped a kid get from point A to point B?”
Those are questions Thacker has gotten to ask himself for more than 20 years across four different sports. He might be late from time to time, but the fact that he keeps showing up reveals he likes the answers he’s getting.
Lexington Christian at Danville
What: Class 2A playoffs
When: 7:30 p.m.