High School Basketball

Hall of Fame coach Al Prewitt, who guided Henry Clay to state title, dies at 86

Al Prewitt, whose legacy was defined by his glory days as a star athlete and a Hall of Fame basketball coach at Henry Clay High School, died Tuesday morning at his Lexington home. He was 86.

Prewitt’s proudest — and most bittersweet — accomplishment in sports was guiding Henry Clay to the 1983 Sweet Sixteen title. The Blue Devils outlasted Carlisle County 35-33 in an epic triple-overtime championship game in Rupp Arena.

“I can’t tell you how much winning that meant to Al,” said Bob Tripure, who was Prewitt’s assistant at Henry Clay for 20 years. “He knew we had a special group that year, and going into the state tournament he told me, ‘We’ve got to get it right.’ And I guess we did.”

Prewitt was torn emotionally during that Sweet Sixteen because his wife, Betty, was in the hospital dying of cancer.

“These kids won it for her,” Prewitt said, sobbing, after the title game. “God love ‘em. God love ‘em.”

Four former Lexington high school basketball coaches reminisced about the good old days competing against one another when they reunited in June 2018. From left to right were: Bobby Barlow (Bryan Station), Nolan Barger (Tates Creek), Al Prewitt (Henry Clay) and Jock Sutherland (Lafayette). Mike Fields

Prewitt had a career coaching record of 654-237, with 621 of his victories coming at his alma mater. He also was an assistant football coach at Henry Clay for 13 years, and was the school’s athletic director for 21 years.

Prewitt was a multi-sport athlete at Henry Clay in the early 1950s. He earned nine varsity letters in basketball, football and track. He also helped the Blue Devils reach the Sweet Sixteen quarterfinals in 1952.

He went on to play college basketball at Transylvania under Coach C.M. Newton.

Prewitt began his coaching career at Henry Central High School in New Castle. After two seasons he moved on to Millersburg Military Institute.

When MMI played Henry Clay that year, Blue Devils Coach Elmer “Baldy” Gilb told Prewitt he was getting ready to retire and that he wanted his former player to succeed him.

Al Prewitt played college basketball at Transylvania University under Coach C.M. Newton after completing a multi-sport career at Henry Clay in the early 1950s. He earned nine high school varsity letters in basketball, football and track. He also helped the Blue Devils reach the Sweet Sixteen quarterfinals in 1952. Herald-Leader File Photo

So Prewitt went to Henry Clay for one season to serve as Gilb’s assistant, then took over as head coach in 1962.

Under Prewitt’s leadership for 29 years, the Blue Devils won the 11th Region eight times. They were state runners-up in 1975, and captured the championship in 1983.

Steve Miller, Mr. Basketball in 1984, was Henry Clay’s biggest star on that title team.

He recalled his former coach as being “tough, but it was a loving tough.

“It was almost like your father hugging you real hard. You didn’t care how hard he hugged you. You were just glad he was that close to you.”

Tripure also remembered Prewitt being tough on his players.

“Al was very funny, but I can tell you, the kids never saw that side of him. He was from the old school. He was a hard-nosed coach, but he mixed in enough praise that kids liked him and really respected him.”

Tripure left Prewitt’s side in the mid-1980s to take over the Henry Clay girls’ program. Tripure led the Blue Devils to the girls’ Sweet Sixteen title in 1990, and also coached Lexington Catholic to the girls’ state championship in 1999.

“Any success I had I owe to Al Prewitt,” Tripure said. “Everything I knew about basketball — how to coach and how to handle kids — I learned from him.”

prewitt podium.jpg
Al Prewitt spoke at the formal renaming of Henry Clay High School’s basketball gymnasium in his honor in 2003. The gym was renamed Al Prewitt Gymnasium. CHARLES BERTRAM LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

Former Tates Creek Coach Nolan Barger, who competed against Prewitt’s Henry Clay teams for two decades, also remembered him as a master strategist.

“Al always had good talent, but he always knew what to do with it,” Barger said. “He had that ability where you almost had to develop a game plan just to go against him.”

Prewitt is in the Dawahares/KHSAA Hall of Fame and the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame.

Miller was inducted into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame two months ago, and a few days before the ceremony he got a phone call from Prewitt.

“He said in that deep voice of his, ‘I just want to tell you something. I won’t be able to be down there with you in Elizabethtown, but I’m sure proud of you.’” Miller recalled. “Man, what a feeling it was to hear him say that. It made me feel like a kid again.

“I told him, ‘I love you, Coach.’ He said, ‘I love you, too.’ He had never said that to me before, and it meant so much to me.

“I was truly blessed to have him in my life.”

Al Prewitt is survived by sons Al Jr. (Tyler) and Greg (Charlotte), daughter Kara Winnings (Jeff), six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending.