In 1976, Bo Davenport coached Edmonson County to Kentucky’s real-life version of Hoosiers, leading a little school from out of nowhere to one of the most unlikely boys’ Sweet Sixteen championships ever.
On the 40th anniversary of Davenport’s state championship, Mason County Coach Buddy Biggs is a living homage to that long-ago March.
Bear with me, and I’ll explain.
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This has been Biggs’ wild ride over the past year.
On March 13, 2015, after eight good years and one disastrous season as Ashland Tomcats head coach, Biggs was fired.
On March 8, 2016, Biggs cut down the nets after leading Mason County to an unexpected 10th Region championship.
So one season after getting sacked, Biggs will coach Mason (23-10) in Rupp Arena in the Sweet Sixteen on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. against 5th Region champion Taylor County (24-8).
“It’s been tough at times. I’m not gonna lie about that,” Biggs said, his voice quavering with emotion. “But we are very grateful to be where we are now.”
The way it ended at Ashland, it was hard. But I couldn’t see Buddy not coaching. It’s his passion. He wouldn’t have known what to do with himself if he wasn’t coaching.
Allison Biggs, wife of Mason County coach Buddy Biggs
In 2005, Biggs coached Pendleton County to its first boys’ Sweet Sixteen trip since 1971. At 34, the Covington Catholic and Northern Kentucky University graduate had stamped himself as one of the rising stars in Kentucky high school basketball coaching.
He parlayed his success into the head coaching job at Ashland Blazer in 2006. At one time, Ashland was the preeminent high school coaching position in the state. In its rich history, Ashland has played in 32 state tournaments, been in eight championship games and won four state titles.
However, economic changes (Ashland Oil, now Ashland, Inc., moved its corporate headquarters to Covington in 1999) and population declines (Ashland had 29,245 residents in the 1970 U.S. census; it had 21,684 in 2010’s) make 21st century Ashland a very different place to coach than was 20th century Ashland.
In his first eight years as Tomcats coach, Biggs won 20 games or more six times and advanced to the 16th Region championship game four times. Ashland lost all four of those games, which became a source of frustration. Still, other coaches generally perceived Biggs to be maximizing the Tomcats’ talent.
No one was prepared for what happened in 2014-15. Proud Ashland lost its first 18 games en route to a 5-27 record.
What happened? Going into the season, Biggs thought he had three very good players to build around, and scheduled accordingly. Then two of those players transferred, and the remaining one got hurt.
“Our schedule was brutal,” Biggs said. “I essentially had to play a JV team against a very brutal varsity schedule.”
Had a couple of those 16th Region championship game losses gone the other way, Biggs might have had the capital in the bank to survive the collapse.
They hadn’t, and he didn’t.
The emotional wallop of having been fired — in conversation, the coach repeatedly uses the word “released” instead — hit Biggs hard.
That weekend, he and his wife, Allison, had heart-to-heart conversations about whether Biggs even wanted to stay in coaching.
“The way it ended at Ashland, it was hard,” Allison Biggs said. “But I couldn’t see Buddy not coaching. It’s his passion. He wouldn’t have known what to do with himself if he wasn’t coaching.”
After that soul searching, Buddy Biggs said ‘we picked ourselves up by the bootstraps that Monday and said ‘If this is still what you want to do, you’ve got to be positive and go out and pursue jobs.”
Biggs says Ashland Principal Derek Runyon and Athletics Director Mark Swift “were very, very helpful, very, very classy in terms of helping me pursue other jobs. They wrote letters. They made phone calls.”
In April, it was announced that Chris O’Hearn was giving up the head coaching job at Mason County to become the school’s principal.
When Kelly Wells was Mason head man, Biggs had spent a year (2000-01) as a Royals assistant. His wife, the former Allison Walker, had been a Mason County cheerleader.
“I’ve known Coach Biggs a long time,” O’Hearn said. “Bottom line, he’s a good basketball coach. He’s not only a good basketball coach, he does a good job in the classroom (as an English teacher). ... We were flattered he was interested in this job and we’re not surprised he’s done an outstanding job this year.”
Mason County entered the 2015-16 season with one returning starter, point guard Antwavon “Pig” Williams. The Royals were picked fifth in the 10th Region in the Herald-Leader preseason coaches’ poll.
Yet led by Williams, sophomore guard Isiah Garrison and senior forwards Conner Sweeney and Darren Williams, Mason jelled late. In the 10th Region Tournament, the Royals beat Campbell County on a last-second shot, rallied past Paris, then snuffed out Augusta’s dream season in a tense 10th Region finals.
In so doing, they helped their 45-year-old coach shake free from the ghosts of those four regional finals losses at Ashland.
“You begin to wonder ‘What am I doing wrong?’” Biggs said.
Forty years ago this March, another coach who had been fired the season before reached the Sweet Sixteen.
Before Bo Davenport coached the ultimate Kentucky high school basketball Cinderella in 1976 at Edmonson County, he had been let go as head man at Grayson County in 1975. After he won the state tournament, Davenport said “They told me at Grayson County I couldn’t coach. Well, they were wrong.”
Making its 15th boys’ state tournament appearance, Mason County — the 2003 (Chris Lofton) and 2008 (Darius Miller) Kentucky state champions — is no Edmonson County.
Still, in reaching the Sweet Sixteen as a coach one season after being fired, Buddy Biggs is walking on Bo Davenport’s path.
“I hope we can do what they did,” Biggs said. “That would be a great connection to have.”