Mark Story

Why a Kentucky basketball icon is rooting for Wofford instead of the Cats

Kentucky is used to being everyone’s Super Bowl

Kentucky basketball’s Keldon Johnson talks about Saturday opponent Wofford being called a Cinderella in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Johnson scored 25 points in UK’s win over Abilene Christian on Thursday.
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Kentucky basketball’s Keldon Johnson talks about Saturday opponent Wofford being called a Cinderella in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Johnson scored 25 points in UK’s win over Abilene Christian on Thursday.

In a lifetime spent in and around basketball in Kentucky, Billy Hicks, 66, has never rooted against the UK Wildcats in an NCAA Tournament game.

“But, God help me, in the state of Kentucky they will shoot me, but I’m rooting for Wofford Saturday,” Hicks said.

Hicks, the all-time winningest coach in the history of boys’ high school basketball in the commonwealth, has a reason for eschewing the Big Blue.

The longtime Scott County High School head coach is a 1974 graduate of Wofford, the small, liberal arts college in Spartanburg, S.C.

To the nation, the most famous Wofford alumni might be outgoing Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson (Class of 1959) and ESPN anchor Wendi Nix (Class of 1996).

In Kentucky, Hicks — the winner of a state-record 1,013 career boys basketball games and two Sweet Sixteen titles (1998 and 2007) — is the most renowned former Terrier.

“Billy is a proud Wofford graduate,” said Terriers Coach Mike Young. “And I tell you what, I’m really proud to tell people that Billy is a Wofford graduate, the number of games that man has won throughout his career.”

Mike Young Wofford.JPG
Wofford Coach Mike Young has been friends with Kentucky high school coaching icon Billy Hicks, a 1974 Wofford graduate, for decades. “I love Billy,” Young said. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

How Hicks got from his native Harlan County to receive an education at Wofford is story in itself.

In 1970, the College of Charleston was recruiting Hicks, then a basketball standout at Evarts High School. “It was a deal where, they wanted me to go to junior college for two years, then they would have a scholarship for me,” Hicks said.

So College of Charleston “placed” Hicks at North Greenville Junior College in South Carolina. “I had never been to South Carolina in my life,” Hicks said.

While at North Greenville, Hicks and his teammates scrimmaged against Wofford in Spartanburg.

“They fed us, and it was the best food I had ever had,” Hicks said. “You’re laughing, but that was a big deal to me. I didn’t forget that.”

The following summer, Hicks found out his North Greenville coach, Jim Tankesley, was leaving. Rather than wait another year to go to the College of Charleston, Hicks decided to transfer to a four-year school immediately.

Wofford basketball star Fletcher Magee talks to the media on Friday, March 22, 2019, at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla. Wofford plays Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday.

After he had already committed to Wofford coach Gene Alexander, Hicks’ future father-in-law, Jim Hendrickson, asked him if he was aware the South Carolina college was, at that time, essentially an all-boys school.

“I was like ‘No girls? What have I done?’” Hicks said.

According to the Wofford men’s basketball media guide, Hicks played 77 games for the Terriers, hit 41.5 percent of his field-goal tries and 58.9 percent of his foul shots. He ended his three-year Terriers career with 703 points (9.1 points per game) and 385 rebounds (5.0 per game).

“I have never met a bad person who went to Wofford,” Hicks said. “At that time, I had to be one of the poorest kids ever to go to that school. But the other kids, the kids from South Carolina, they would take me home and feed me.”

As Hicks rose to prominence back in his home state coaching high school basketball, his ties to his college alma mater never frayed.

Just last summer, Hicks took some of his Scott County players to a team camp at Wofford.

Wofford is among the schools wooing Michael Moreno, the senior star of Hicks’ 2019 state runner-up team. The Terriers even had an assistant fly up to see the forward play in the Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena earlier this month.

Scott County head coach Billy Hicks earns his 1000th victory after defeating Frederick Douglass 70-38 on Thursday.

Hicks and Young, now in his 17th year as Wofford’s head coach, have been friends for decades.

“I don’t see him enough,” Young said. “I love Billy. … I’m going to go fishing with him in a couple of weeks. We’re gonna float down that river in that raft, and I can’t wait to do it.”

After Scott County’s 50-40 loss to Trinity in the 2019 state finals, Hicks said he was “99 percent sure” he was retiring from coaching.

On Friday, he said he’s going through with that. “I turned in my final paperwork today,” he said.

So for Hicks, it’s a time for new experiences.

When John Calipari and NCAA Tournament Midwest Region No. 2 seed Kentucky (28-6) face off with No. 7 Wofford (30-4) in the round of 32 on Saturday around 2:40 p.m. at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, the Cats will not have Hicks’ allegiance in the game.

“Talent-wise, I don’t see how Wofford can match up with Kentucky,” Hicks said. “But you know what? Coach Young’s team does three things: They block out, they play good team offense and they play good team defense. You do those three things, you have a chance.”

As for the Big Blue Nation, our state’s all-time winningest boys’ high school basketball coach has a plea.

“(Wofford) is my school,” Billy Hicks said. “People will understand that, won’t they?”

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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