Bobby Keith, the legendary boys’ basketball coach who won more than 700 games at Clay County High School and guided the Tigers to their only state title, died Wednesday in Manchester. He was 75.
WYMT first reported that Keith died from an apparent heart attack at Manchester Memorial Hospital. Clay County Coroner Danny Finley confirmed the original report to the Herald-Leader.
Keith coached 27 seasons at Clay County, including 24 straight beginning with the 1970-71 season. He retired as the state’s third-winningest coach and remains fifth on that list with 767 wins to 125 losses for an 86 percent career win percentage. He was the all-time leader among coaches who coached exclusively at a mountain school during their career.
Keith played on 13th Region title teams at Clay County in 1957 and 1958 and was an assistant for eight seasons, during which Clay County reached two Sweet Sixteens, before he took over for Skyler Garrison in 1970. He led the Tigers to 18 state tournaments as a head coach, including seven straight from 1984 to 1990.
In 1987, Keith took a Tigers team starring future University of Kentucky standout Richie Farmer — then a junior — to the program’s second Sweet Sixteen championship game, two years after Clay County fell to Hopkinsville, by one point in the 1985 finals. In its second trip to the game, Clay County defeated Ballard, 76-73, in overtime before a crowd of 19,000 in Rupp Arena. That year’s Sweet Sixteen drew 140,266 people, still a tournament record nearly 30 years later.
Clay County’s championship snapped a 31-year drought between titles for mountain schools, Carr Creek’s run to the 1956 trophy being the most recent before it. Keith, a Manchester native, wanted nothing more than to bring back hardware to his region.
“I may put it on my tombstone, ‘I finally got one,’” Keith told the Herald-Leader after the 1987 finals. “It’s been 31 years since a mountain team did it, so I’m happy and proud to be finally taking the title back there. ...
“Everybody in the mountains can celebrate with us, because we won it for all of them.”
Scott Davenport, the head coach of the Bellarmine men’s basketball team since 2005, was in his first season at Ballard when the Bruins met Clay County for the 1987 crown. It would be the first of three significant meetings in a 12-month span between the powerhouse programs. Clay County won a double-overtime rematch with the Bruins in the semifinals of the next season’s Louisville Invitational Tournament.
The third time proved to be the charm for Ballard as it finally broke through with an 88-79 win in the 1988 finals. A senior Farmer set a finals record with 51 points in that bout. The Tigers’ points were the most by a losing team in the state finals, and that team also set a tournament record with 345 total points scored.
Those were “three of the most epic games at any level of basketball,” Davenport told the Herald-Leader. All told, more than 45,000 people watched.
Davenport was invited to speak at Keith’s retirement ceremony at Clay County. It was during a Memorial Day weekend but Davenport got in his car as quickly as possible and made the drive, calling it one of the greatest honors in his life.
One of the hardest things in basketball is teaching a team not to beat itself. Keith’s teams never did, said Davenport.
“The sign of a great coach is when you can teach players not to try to do things they’re not capable of doing,” Davenport said. “His players never did that. They played to their strengths and absolutely covered their weaknesses. That’s the sign of a great coach and a great teacher.”
Clay County Principal Michael Gregory, who graduated from the school in 1991, recalled what it was like following the Tigers back in Keith’s coaching days. Those teams captured the imagination of fans far outside the Manchester city limits.
“In the ’80s and ’90s, you could go about anywhere in the state and if you had anything Clay County on, that’s the first thing people would say: Bobby Keith,” Gregory said. “Back then we would shut the town down when we were in the Sweet Sixteen.”