Mark Story

Russell County: County rediscovers its basketball roots

RUSSELL SPRINGS — Early in the 20th century, the novelist Thomas Clayton Wolfe wrote You Can't Go Home Again.

Here in the 21st century, the boys' basketball program at Russell County High is giving that assertion a test.

Before Darius Miller and Chris Lofton. Before Mason County became a two-time boys' high school basketball state champion.

Back in the 1980s, when Mason County was making the ascent that has made it one of our state's foremost high school basketball programs, one name was synonymous with Royals hoops.

Feldhaus.

Allen Feldhaus Sr. was the "father" of the modern Mason County hoops dynasty. He was the head coach who led Mason to its first state tournament appearance in 1981, then brought the Royals back three more times.

For Feldhaus, his coaching days at Mason County were a version of My Three Sons.

His oldest, Allen Jr., was a standout guard on the Mason County team that lost to Simon Kenton in the 1981 state finals. Allen Jr. played his college basketball at Eastern Kentucky.

Middle son Willie was a starting forward on a Mason squad that entered the '82 Sweet Sixteen undefeated before losing to Todd May and Virgie.

The youngest, Deron, was the best player of all, taking his dad to two more Sweet Sixteen trips (1985 and '87) before going on to become a 1,000-point scorer at the University of Kentucky.

What few recall is that, after his days playing for Adolph Rupp at UK (1960-62), Allen Feldhaus Sr. cut his coaching teeth working as both head basketball and baseball coach at Russell County.

"That 10, 11 years there was probably my most enjoyable coaching experience," Feldhaus Sr. said last week. "For me, Russell County was where I really learned how to coach."

While the Feldhaus clan achieved statewide basketball prominence in Mason County, for Russell County High School it was baseball, even golf, that became the sports calling cards.

Sustained boys' basketball success proved as elusive as December sunshine in Alaska.

By 2005, Russell County had gone seven years without even winning a district title. Seeking to put some life back in their program, Russell County school officials decided to make a play on bloodlines.

For two of the three basketball-playing Feldhaus boys, their future relationships to their dad's profession seemed settled from the get-go.

Allen Jr. knew before he started grade school that he would follow his father into coaching.

"When he was 4, I would take him with me when I went to a game to scout," Feldhaus Sr. said. "Other little kids would be running around under the bleachers, but he'd sit right there with me and watch the game. After it was over, he'd ask questions all the way home."

No one who knew Allen Jr. then would be surprised at what he's become. A successful high school coach who has led Madison Central to two championships in the rugged 11th Region and who this season went over 400 career wins.

On the other hand, Deron was saying even after his playing career at UK ended with Christian Laettner's dagger in the 1992 NCAA Tournament that he had no interest in becoming a coach, a stance he's held to ever since.

The future career direction for Willie was not as defined.

While he was playing basketball at Morehead State, Willie Feldhaus said he thought a career in athletic training looked intriguing.

It got to his junior year, he was trying to sign up for classes and his registration was rejected.

"I had to go see some administrator," Willie Feldhaus said, "and they said, 'No wonder you couldn't sign up. You're a junior and you haven't declared a major. You have to pick a major.'"

In a pinch, you go with what you know. Willie picked education.

After college, Willie had a three-year stint as head basketball coach at Pendleton County, but soon settled into a comfortable position working as an assistant coach for his older brother at Madison Central.

"When I signed on, I told him, look, I have opinions and I'm going to give them," Willie Feldhaus said. "We sort of worked out a deal. When I said something Allen didn't like, he'd say, 'Shut the hell up.' Since we were brothers, there were no hard feelings. So that worked."

Willie toiled for his brother for 11 years, serving as freshman coach and a varsity assistant.

Over time, Willie Feldhaus said his wife, Katie, pointed out that with his duties with both the freshmen and the varsity, he was putting in essentially the same amount of time a high school head coach would.

Why not take another shot at becoming a head man?

When the Russell County opening became available, Willie was intrigued.

"I lived here until the fourth grade. And our family, we never really lost our connection here," he said. "We'd come back and play in the Jaycee's Golf Scramble. We'd come back and spend time on house boats on Lake Cumberland with friends."

In Russell County, those with a bit of gray in their hair certainly remember Allen Feldhaus Sr. from his coaching days. Those who followed basketball in Kentucky in the 1980s and 1990s were aware of the playing success of the three Feldhaus boys.

But "we wouldn't have hired Willie if we didn't feel like he had the kind of qualities we needed in a coach to get our program where we want it to go," Russell County Principal Darren Gossage said last month.

Russell County's shining moment in Kentucky basketball history came in 1957. That year, a Russell County team led by standout Ralph Richardson made it all the way to the state tournament semifinals.

It was the school's first Sweet Sixteen trip — it is also its only one.

When Allen Feldhaus Sr. coached Russell County, "we had some good teams," he said. "We had some teams win 20 games, but we couldn't get to the state."

Across the years, "Russell County hasn't been able to do what Mason County's done, get their program to a level where it is competitive every year," Feldhaus Sr. said. "In our family, we've talked about that quite a bit. For whatever reason, it just hasn't happened there."

Willie Feldhaus' first year (2005-06) as head coach coincided with Russell County being realigned from its traditional home in the 12th Region to the 4th Region.

In the Lakers' first year in their new home, they broke through and won the school's first district title since 1998.

Coming into this season, Feldhaus, 45, had led Russell County to two district titles in three years and back-to-back appearances in the 4th Region semifinals.

This year, a smallish team (only one starter taller than 6-foot) led by guards Bryon Ellis and Robbie Bell started 16-1. But counting Friday night's defeat at rival Adair County, the Lakers have lost four of their last seven.

One of Russell County's 19 wins came in a brother-versus-brother coaching battle against Madison Central. Allen Jr. made a point of noting it was the first time his younger brother has beaten him as a head coach.

"He's probably going to win 20 games at a school where that hasn't been easy to do," Allen Feldhaus Jr. said. "There'll be some schools looking at him for jobs if he wants that."

For now, the guy holding a job once occupied by his father and working in a county where the more seasoned adults remember him as a little boy says he doesn't want that.

"I wouldn't have wanted to coach at Mason County," Willie Feldhaus said. "My dad had so much success there, that's where I played and graduated and I just think that would be really tough.

"But coming back here has been good. My wife and my girls (daughters Claire, 10, and Lillie, 5) like it. We've won some ball games. So far, this has worked out."

As it turns out, you can go home.

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