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It was somehow fitting that the call came when Clay Birdwhistell was at basketball camp.
And he was alone.
An assistant girls' basketball coach at Anderson County High School since 2006, Birdwhistell was officially offered the promotion to head coach last Tuesday while the Lady Bearcats were participating in a summer camp at Campbellsville University.
When the call came from athletic director Rick Sallee, Birdwhistell was alone in his dorm room. It was eerily symbolic. Now, as head coach, Birdwhistell stands alone with the full responsibility of running a program that has been among Kentucky's best over the last five years.
“It was 6:48, Tuesday night,” Birdwhistell said with a huge smile after he and the Lady Bearcats had returned from Campbellsville.
But there was no celebratory dance. No fist pumps. Just time alone to reflect on the circuitous route Birdwhistell had taken to a dream he thought might never come true.
When Tony Kays stepped down as head coach after 15 years, immediate speculation about his successor pointed to Birdwhistell, the program's top assistant coach during a run of three state tournament appearances in five years. However, the school kept its options open. The job was posted and, as predicted, drew substantial interest. Sallee could not reveal any names that applied, but did say there were some well-known coaches who submitted resumes.
That unknown gnawed at Birdwhistell, who felt he had earned the chance to lead the program.
But Sallee said the off-the-court dynamics quickly pared the list of qualified applicants.
“We had many applicants but with no teaching position available, it cut those down,” Sallee said.
And Birdwhistell had a huge advantage over anyone else who applied. “We chose someone that has a passion and understanding of the Anderson County way,” Sallee continued. “We just want to continue with our program in the same direction it has been successfully going under Coach Kays.
“I kept remembering something my grandfather used to say, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'”
Birdwhistell has been around during a time when Anderson elevated its status from a good program that was a regional contender most years to the level it has enjoyed the last two years. Anderson has been ranked in the state's Top 5 nearly every week since December of 2012. The Lady Bearcats made the state's Final Four in 2013 and finished the season in the Elite Eight in the most recent season.
“I tell the kids all the time when you have worked hard and have earned the right to win, it is a pretty sweet feeling,” Birdwhistell said. “I feel I have earned that right. I want to represent the community and the school.”
A member of the Anderson County Class of 1995, Birdwhistell had dreamed of coaching before matriculating through the high school doors. His uncle, Jerry Davis, had a distinguished career coaching hoops at Ripley High School in Ohio, and had introduced Birdwhistell to work on the bench.
But while in high school, Birdwhistell abandoned his dream and gave up playing the game he loves. “I listened to some people I should not have listened to,” he said with a tone of reflection. “Now I have a second chance.”
The director of youth services at the high school, Birdwhistell is about 15 hours short of the college degree in history that he has been pursuing. “I got married young and with (his wife) Tracey going to school, I had to work.”
The path led Birdwhistell to jobs as varied as construction and working with the Dale Carnegie organization.
However, the love for basketball never wavered.
When he returned to Lawrenceburg, that unlikely path to the end of the bench suddenly got a bit wider. Ken Fenwick, then the girls' basketball coach at Anderson County Middle School, had noticed Birdwhistell coaching in church league games. He offered a position helping out with the Lady Mustang program.
“I told him I would do it one year,” Birdwhistell laughed.
Three years later, Birdwhistell had taken over the middle school program and led the Lady Mustangs to the state championship.
And he had begun working at the high school. He's also been the driving force in developing the Anderson Elite travel team program to further develop the Anderson County program. “I have coached at every level of this program,” Birdwhistell smiled. “I have coached the varsity in the summer when I was in charge of the program. That was a valuable experience.”
He says he has learned immensely from Kays. “Tony, for one, had to be very humble. He made it all about the kids,” Birdwhistell says, “and he brought in good help.
“To give Wayne King the responsibilities he did, someone who had taken a boys' team to the state tournament and has been successful in every way, showed Tony had no ego problem.”
Birdwhistell adds that Anderson boys' coach Glen Drury, who as a young coach saw Birdwhistell leave the program, has been extremely supportive. “I can't say enough nice things about Glen,” Birdwhistell says.
And in the recently completed school year, Birdwhistell joined the staff of Anderson softball coach Brent Aldridge. “Brent is a great head coach and (softball assistant) Shawn Black is a great person,” Birdwhistell says. “That was a great experience for me.”
And that team made the state tournament too, prompting another big smile from the new basketball coach. “I have four regional championships, too,” he said.
For several years, Birdwhistell has been the equivalent of an offensive coordinator, calling the offensive sets as Anderson became one of the higher scoring teams in Kentucky.
He's not sure that will be the case in 2014-15. Anderson is considered by some to be a threat to repeat as regional champs in March, despite losing the school's all-time leading scorers, Eriel McKee and Makenzie Cann.
“Right now, that's all speculation,” says Birdwhistell, who added that the Lady Bearcats played well at Campbellsville, but the lack of size really hurt the team at times. “What you will see is kids who will play as hard as they can play,” Birdwhistell says. “Our team will be changing for the first time in six years. Our personnel demands we will need to change. Coaching at the high school level means you have to adjust to the talent you've got.”