S.T. Roach, a legendary basketball coach at Lexington Dunbar who was at the forefront of integrating the high school game in the 1950s, died Thursday afternoon.
He was 94.
"Mr. Roach was a great man and a special person," said Bobby Washington, who played for Dunbar in the early 1960s.
"He gave us discipline and he taught us to always act like gentlemen and to always stay together and work hard when we faced adversity."
Mr. Roach had 610 career victories, 512 of them coming in 22 years (1943-65) at Dunbar.
Before integration, the Bearcats played in the old Kentucky High School Athletic League. Mr. Roach led them to two "black" state championships.
In 1956, Dunbar was the first black school to join the Kentucky High School Athletic Association.
Mr. Roach guided the Bearcats to the Sweet Sixteen six times, finishing as state runners-up in 1961 and 1963.
Mr. Roach's legacy is as much about the man as it is the coach. He was a gentleman on and off the court, quiet and dignified, yet unflinchingly determined in getting things done.
"He took me under his wing and was always helpful," said P.G. Peeples, president and CEO of the Urban League of Lexington-Fayette County
"You knew you could trust his guidance. He was so respected by everybody.
"He leaves a void. Coach made big footprints as he came through."
When the University of Kentucky named Tubby Smith its first black men's basketball coach in 1997, Mr. Roach, a member of the UK Athletics Association, made the motion to hire Smith.
"I knew he took a lot of pride in that," Smith said, "and I was proud that he was the guy who did that."
Mr. Roach said at the time that he was "just thankful the good Lord let me live long enough to see this happen. I never thought this day would come."
When former UK athletics director C.M. Newton was a young basketball coach at Transylvania, he got to know Mr. Roach and even officiated some of Dunbar's games.
"Those were the early days of integration," Newton recalled. He handled it "with great class and great empathy. ... He really understood the magnitude of the situation.
"He was just a good, solid man."
Billy Reed was a witness to those early days of integration, too, as a young sportswriter for the Lexington Herald.
In 2001, Reed wrote a book about Mr. Roach, Transition Game.
"In his own way, he was very much like Dr. (Martin Luther) King," Reed said upon hearing of Mr. Roach's death.
"He taught those young men a lot more than basketball. He taught them about life, and how to handle themselves in unfair, ugly circumstances."
As for Mr. Roach's coaching style, Reed said, "He showed how you could be strong by being gentle. He was not a screamer, not a foot-stomper and I never heard him curse.
"But he was all about discipline. I'm sure those who played for him will tell you they were better men for it."
Former UK Coach Joe B. Hall called Mr. Roach "a top-notch man and a very good friend."
"I admired everything about him," Hall said. "He was a gentlemen and a very caring citizen in this town.
"He bridged a lot of problems, and he always did it gracefully and with dignity."
Hall said Mr. Roach "absolutely could have been an outstanding college coach. His teams reflected his discipline and his knowledge."
When UK moved into Rupp Arena in 1976, Mr. Roach went to then-UK president Otis Singletary about ensuring that Lexington's black community would have access to lower-level tickets in the new basketball palace.
Mr. Roach remembered from personal experience that in the mid-1950s, when UK played in Memorial Coliseum, lower-level seats were for whites only.
Mr. Roach got what he wanted when Singletary told him that he could have 200 lower-arena season tickets.
Mr. Roach went out and sold them for $60 a pair, giving the black community representation in Rupp Arena to watch a basketball team that was becoming increasingly integrated.
Sanford Thomas Roach was born in Frankfort in 1916.
He was a standout athlete at the old Danville Bate High School and went on to star in basketball at Kentucky State College.
Mr. Roach began his career as a high school teacher and coach at Bate. After three successful seasons in Danville, Dunbar hired him away.
He quickly built the Bearcats into a powerhouse.
Mr. Roach pushed integration forward by taking his Dunbar teams across the state to play.
The Bearcats weren't always treated well by opponents or opposing fans, but Mr. Roach would not let his players give in to racist taunts.
"Some places treated us rough," Washington said, "but Mr. Roach wouldn't let us react. He told us to just play and behave and be men."
Peeples heard stories about how Mr. Roach's Bearcats handled themselves: "He insisted on his players being dignified even in adversity."
Mr. Roach retired from coaching at age 49, soon after No. 1-rated Dunbar lost in the quarterfinals of the state tournament in 1965, the same year his wife, Mary, died.
In Reed's book, Mr. Roach is quoted: "Something happened to my spirits after I lost my wife. After she died, I wanted no part of basketball."
Washington said Mr. Roach will be remembered in Lexington "for a long time, not just for his basketball record but what he did to help so many young boys become men."
Smith & Smith Funeral Home, 340 East Third Street, is in charge of funeral arrangements.