After Buckhorn’s upset victory over Perry County Central in the 14th Region finals, Wildcats Coach John Noble made it calmly through the handshake line.
Then, his emotions overtook him. Tears filled his eyes. He dropped his head. Yet seconds later, the coach thrust his chest out and threw his arms emphatically into the air in an exaggerated gesture of triumph.
If it looked like a move John Cena might make, it’s because it was.
When 14th Region champion Buckhorn (19-14) ventures to Rupp Arena on Wednesday to face 1st Region champ Murray (29-5), there will be much unknown about a matchup between teams from eastern and far western Kentucky.
It seems safe, however, to say the coach with the most interesting side job in the 2016 Sweet Sixteen will be on the Buckhorn (enrollment of some 175) bench.
Since 1997, Noble, 42, has moonlighted as a professional wrestler.
Back in the day, legendary Kentucky high school coaches Ralph Carlisle (Lafayette) and Paul Jenkins (Ashland, Male) each won three state championships — but could they have told you what it was like to be hit over the head with a folding chair?
“It hurts,” Noble says. “It’s one of those things, there’s no such thing as a fake chair. But they’ve banned that now.”
Scott County head man Billy Hicks has won a state-record 26 boys’ Sweet Sixteen games — but can he tell you what it’s like to be trapped inside the ring during a cage match?
“We were in Monticello, and we were the bad guys and we climbed over the cage to get in the ring and we were up to no good, beat up the good guy,” Noble says. “When we tried to get back out, we couldn’t get the cage open because it was swinging open (to the outside) and the fans were blocking it. We had to push and kick, amongst other things, to get out of there. That story, trust me, it was a lot cooler after it happened than while it was going on.”
The fascination with pro wrestling that still captivates a married, father of two began when Noble was 4.
“My dad was a wrestling fan,” Noble says. “I was sick, and I don’t even remember why I was in the hospital, but I was 4 years old and it was time for Saturday morning cartoons. I wanted to watch my cartoons. But my dad managed to get the channel on wrestling and wouldn’t let me turn it. So I started watching, and that’s how I got hooked.”
Even after Noble was a reserve on Buckhorn’s 1989 Sweet Sixteen team, had played college baseball at Berea and begun a teaching career in his native Perry County, the pro wrestling bug did not go away.
He found a kindred spirit in fellow teacher and coach Eddie Browning, now the Buckhorn athletics director. The two encouraged each other to pursue their passion and began working as independent contractors for pro wrestling promoters around Kentucky and Tennessee.
Noble’s first match was in Elkhorn City on July 4, 1997.
“I wanted to do it since I was 4 years old,” Noble says. “I just think about that every time I go do it, even now. ... It’s like being a kid every time you get to go out there.”
By 2000-2002, Noble had a regular weekend circuit. “My loop was usually Friday nights, down south of Nashville, down around Spring Hill, Tenn.,” he says. “Then Columbia, Tenn., on Saturday nights; then Elizabethtown on Sunday afternoon, then Bowling Green on Sunday nights.”
When they wrestled outside Eastern Kentucky, Noble says he and Browning tended to be bad guys, the heels, and wear masks. Often, their moniker was “The Storm Bringers.”
I wanted to do it since I was 4 years old. I just think about that every time I go do it, even now. ... It’s like being a kid every time you get to go out there.
John Noble on his pro wrestling career
Conversely, when they wrestled near home, they usually worked under their own names and were good guys. “It just seemed stupid to create a character where everybody knows you,” Noble said.
Not everyone in Perry County was as enthusiastic about the pro wrestling as Noble and Browning.
Says Browning: “Some of our (school) administrators weren’t too high on it.”
Adds Noble: “The main thing with our administrators, we’re grown men on our own time and they understand that. Their main thing was (that) we didn’t do anything to embarrass the school system.”
Noble’s first date with the woman who would become his wife saw him selling the idea of pro wrestling.
“We were kind of set up through her cousin,” Noble said. “We go out to eat and we kind of get to talking about things we did and liked. And I always wanted to kind of establish (the pro wrestling) early because it’s a pretty polarizing thing. But when I first told her, she thought I meant amateur wrestling, like Olympic wrestling, and she was like ‘That is so cool.’”
By the time the couple married, Melanie Noble had long since figured out pro wrestling was not her cup of tea.
“Sometimes I’d take John to matches down around Nashville,” she says. “I’d drop him off, and I’d go to the mall. Or I’d go someplace and read a book. I understand it’s something he loves doing, but it’s just not my thing. And he respects that, too.”
The couple’s daughters, Haley, 13, and Emily, 8, do not go to Noble’s wrestling matches.
Since he became Buckhorn head basketball coach in 2002, Noble has not had as much time to invest in pro wrestling. “The promoters pretty well understand I am out of commission during the season,” he says.
Pro wrestling may be scripted, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy on the body. “It’s like being in a car wreck every night,” Browning, 44, says.
At 42, Noble says bouncing back from the matches is not as easy as it once was. “I actually lost a ‘retirement match’ back at Thanksgiving,” he said. “So, technically, I’m retired at this point. But you never know.”
All the fascination with her husband’s pro wrestling, Melanie Noble says, should not distract from his top professional priority. “John loves wrestling,” she says, “but he was born to coach. That’s his mission.”
Writing in The Cats’ Pause preseason basketball yearbook, John Henson of the Harlan Daily Enterprise noted no 14th Region coach “does more with less on a consistent basis than Buckhorn Coach John Noble.”
After struggling early against a rugged schedule, a senior-oriented Buckhorn squad led by 6-foot-3 guard Connor Haskins righted itself and won 12 of its final 15 games, including the region finals victory over county rival Perry Central that allowed Noble to live his coaching dream.
“It’s incredible just from the standpoint I went to Buckhorn, I played there,” he said.
Just last season, Rod Drake, a star of Owensboro’s 1980 state title team, coached his alma mater to the Sweet Sixteen championship — but can he tell you what it’s like to be confronted by a “biker-looking guy” while wrestling in a bar in Richmond?
John Noble can.
“We’d done something dastardly, and I look up and this biker-looking guy, tattooed up, feeling pretty good, is climbing in the ring,” Noble says. “Typically, there are unwritten rules on how you handle that. I looked around, there was no security.”
When the guy got up to Noble, he thrust his arm forward.
“He says ‘Buddy, you are doing a heckuva job,’” Noble recalls, laughing. “He shook my hand and got out of the ring.”