Veteran coach Bob Osborne teaching about living while coaching basketball
By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com
NOTE: This article first appeared in the Dec. 19, 2018 edition of The Anderson News.
“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.”
–Lou Gehrig, Yankee Stadium, July 4, 1939.
When Bob Osborne joined the girls’ basketball coaching staff at Anderson County High School this year, it was widely considered a great move for a team that was already eyeing a spot in the state tournament in March.
Osborne carried an impressive resume from the 12 years he guided girls’ hoops at Owen County High School: Seven district championships, four trips to the Eighth Region Tournament semifinals, three-time regional Coach of the Year. And above all those accolades, Osborne earned the reputation as one of the true gentlemen in the game.
He’d retired at Owen after 2017 season. He’d coached 37 years — 25 as an assistant — and had taught fourth grade for 34 years. Along the way, Osborne had become good friends with Clay Birdwhistell, now the Anderson head coach.
“I was always scouting,” Osborne recalls. “I would run into the Anderson coaches on the road quite a bit. I really respected Tony (Kays, the former Anderson coach) and Clay.”
The teams had some epic battles. “Anderson was always a game we got up for,” Osborne remembers with a smile.
Despite the rivalry, there was respect and friendship on both sides. It was so deep that when Osborne announced his retirement, Birdwhistell threw out the idea of Osborne becoming a part of the Lady Bearcat program. The veteran coach accepted the challenge for the 2018-19 season but little did anyone know that coaching basketball would be simultaneously difficult and rewarding.
Bringing Osborne aboard was a natural move for the Lady Bearcats. In recent years, it’s not been uncommon for retired coaches to give their expertise to another program and with his team eyeing the state tournament for the first time in five years, Birdwhistell believed bringing Osborne aboard would give Anderson another perspective.
“He gives me a different point of view,” Birdwhistell says. “I’ve got someone who will be honest with me. I tell the girls that everybody has to get better. It would be hypocritical to tell the girls to get better but for me as a coach to sit back and stay the same.”
The Lady Bearcats quickly took to the soft-spoken Osborne, who combines the demeanor of a 63-year-old grandfather with the coaching savvy and expectations of effort and success that were already the foundation of the Anderson program.
“I remember seeing him on the (Owen County) bench, but I didn’t know much about him until he came here,” says Lauren Boblitt, Anderson’s senior center. “He’s brought a lot of experience and knows what he’s talking about.”
Osborne smiles. “The girls here have accepted me like I have been here forever,” he says.
It doesn’t surprise one of Osborne’s Owen County greats. “Now Bob is almost like a grandpa to the girls,” says Rianna Gayheart, the 2012 Eighth Region Player of the Year. “It’s so different being in the gym because you have to as a head coach and then being able to come back because you truly love the game. I know he is being such a positive energy for those girls and I know he loves it as well.”
Gayheart went on to play four years at Northern Kentucky University and is now an assistant coach at Walton-Verona High School.
And after being on the sideline for 37 years, along with stints as head baseball coach and assistant softball coach at Owen County, Osborne realized during his first year of retirement that the competitive fires were still burning. “I tell Clay I wish I hadn’t retired,” Osborne smiles.
He passed the time by painting, but in August of 2017, Osborne noticed something happening with his body. “My right thumb would not work,” he says. “I went to a neurologist and he said it was a pinched nerve in my neck.”
As one who preached finding ways to get things done while coaching, the right-handed Osborne just started painting with his left hand.
In the spring, Osborne accepted Birdwhistell’s offer to join the Lady Bearcat coaching staff. “We’d had long discussions about it for years, but that was the first time he said he was 100 percent going to do it,” Birdwhistell says. “He was having some issues, but they were really mild. They were certainly nothing to be alarmed over.”
Osborne accepted a volunteer coaching position, driving from his Owenton home nearly every day. “I get in my car and the GPS automatically says it’s 52 minutes to Anderson County High School,” Osborne laughs.
But Osborne’s problems persisted. He and his neurologist both realized the issue was deeper than a pinched nerve, so Osborne was referred to the Lexington Neurosciences Center in October. He was tested for a muscle disease but the diagnosis was devastating.
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS.
It’s also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, named for the New York Yankees Hall of Famer whose streak of 2,130 consecutive games ended when the first symptoms of ALS began to manifest themselves. Two weeks later, he gave his now famous speech at Lou Gehrig Day between games of a doubleheader.
Osborne’s diagnosis came in early November, about a week before the Lady Bearcats’ first scrimmage in the Glen Drury Classic on Nov. 10.
“When he told me it was ALS, I was just numb. I didn’t know what to say,” Birdwhistell recalls.
Boblitt adds, “We knew he was sick but really didn’t know what it was.”
The reaction around the Eighth Region was predictable.
“I was pretty shocked,” says Owen County coach Amy Wesselman, who had been Osborne’s assistant for 12 years and took over when he retired. “Bob was always and active and healthy guy so hearing that he had such a serious disease was shocking to everyone.”
Owen boys’ coach Devin Duvall recalls, “When I heard the news of his illness, I, along with everyone who knows Bob, was crushed.”
But true to his nature, Osborne thought of his new team first.
“I got sick and told Clay I didn’t want to be a burden,” Osborne says. “He said, ‘Come on. We will work it out.’”
So far they have. Osborne is still able to drive to practice almost every day. As soon as he arrives, he calls Birdwhistell for assistance in getting out of his car and to the gym. Once there, the veteran coach is at home.
“Once we talked about it for a while, it was clear that for a while he was going to be able to be mobile,” Birdwhistell says. “He was driving to Shelbyville and Frankfort to see grandkids. So, I told him the offer was still there, but he had to make sure he was taking care of his family first.”
And Bob Osborne is doing what he loves again.
“He comes down here nearly every single practice just to help us get better,” says Anderson freshman Jacie Chesser, who, as soon as the final buzzer sounds every game, heads to the end of the Anderson bench to retrieve Osborne’s walker.
“Jacie’s first move after the game is to help me up,” Osborne smiles. “Sometimes Jaclynn (Ruble) helps me put on my coat.”
“I saw he was having trouble getting off the bench, so I just wanted to help out,” Chesser says.
During the games both Osborne and the Lady Bearcats have adapted. Heading to the locker room can be an ordeal as Osborne must have assistance to get up and then moves slowly. For 30-second timeouts, where teams remain standing in front of the bench, Osborne simply remains seated, talking with fellow assistants Charlotte Holtzclaw or Jeff Hawkins. For full timeouts, when teams head to the bench, the Lady Bearcats made a simple adaptation.
“I have the third seat on the bench,” Osborne says, “so the girls come in and sit starting in the fourth seat.”
Throughout games, Osborne is often sharing observations with Birdwhistell or another coach or player.
“This has been good for me,” Osborne says. “They gave me an opportunity to be here. They help me and watch out for me.”
His family agrees. “I feel like Clay and the Anderson County staff and team came into my dad’s life at the perfect time,” says Osborne’s daughter, Sarah Gregory, who is an elementary school teacher in Shelby County. “I refer to them as our ‘angels’ when talking to people about how dad is doing. Dad became involved with the team around the time we were figuring out his ALS diagnosis. This diagnosis was devastating to our family. … Being a part of this team has given him something to look forward to and has kept his mind off of being sick and what the future holds.”
Osborne has physical difficulties but he knows he will face a huge emotional challenge on Jan. 26 when the Lady Bearcats visit Owen County for a Saturday afternoon game. “That will be tough, but I will be part of this program.” smiles Osborne, who is a highly-respected member of the Owenton community and a member of the city council.
“Seeing him on the Anderson County bench in January will be odd no doubt,” says Owen County assistant coach Christina Johnson Perkins, who played for Osborne and then joined the Rebel staff his final year coaching there. “However, if he isn’t going to be in Maroon and White there’s nowhere else I’d rather see him. Bob has been a mentor to Clay over the past 10-plus years and they treat him like family.”
Adds Gayheart, “Since he retired, he has been doing a lot of handy work and now that he can’t do that, I think having basketball in his life has been really helpful for him.”
Unfortunately, there is no cure for ALS. The disease’s name comes from the Greek language, meaning “no muscle nourishment.” According to alsa.org, ALS “is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed.”
Most victims can expect to survive 2-to-5 years after diagnosis. “There is no treatment,” Osborne says. “There is a medicine that is supposed to slow it down, but I will eventually have to have a feeding tube.”
As long as Bob Osborne is able, Anderson County is more than happy to have him on the bench.
Birdwhistell says, “The kids have really taken to him and he to them. Sometimes you have to remind yourself that he’s only been here a couple of months.”
And Osborne’s family is glad the he’s a part of the Anderson program. “Dad loves basketball and we are so glad in his retirement and during this difficult time he has found this team,” says Gregory, his daughter. “They are helping him in so many ways right now, more than they even realize I’m sure.”
As for Bob Osborne, his reaction to a devastating disease is predictable.
“I made up my mind that no matter what happened, I was going to stay positive,” Osborne says. “I look at it this way, I’m glad this didn’t happen when I was 40. This happens to a lot of people younger than me. I have lived a great life.”
“I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”
–Lou Gehrig, July 4, 1939.
Reactions to Bob Osborne’s illness
“When Anderson County Coach Clay Birdwhistell told me he was talking with Bob Osborne about joining the Lady Bearcat program as an assistant coach, I was quite intrigued because I knew what an excellent basketball coach and outstanding person Mr. Osborne was. Over my years working with The Anderson News and also doing the Eighth Region previews for The Cats’ Pause Basketball Yearbook, Bob Osborne had become one of my favorites. He was always willing to go above and beyond what I would expect to get the information to me.
“Perhaps my favorite Bob Osborne story is after the 2011 Eighth Region semifinal round when Anderson County had defeated his Owen County team, 47-44. Owen was good. Really good. And the game went to the wire before Anderson’s Eriel McKee made a couple of big plays down the stretch to pull it out. When I sought him out after the game, Osborne didn’t dwell on some miscues by his team or a questionable call that went Anderson’s way late in the game. He chose to praise McKee, Anderson and the effort his team gave.
“That’s the kind of person who joined the Anderson staff this year. The Lady Bearcats are fortunate to have him and I pray he can battle ALS for a long time.”
— John Herndon, Anderson News sports editor and 110forChrist.com
“When I came into the region, he was coaching baseball at Owen County. I got to know him as one of the genuinely nice people in the game.”
— L.W. Barnes, Anderson County High School baseball coach. His step-daughter, Anna Foley, is a member of the Anderson girls’ basketball team.
“When I heard Bob was going to Anderson County to help Clay, I was happy for Bob because I knew he really missed coaching when he retired….Bob with provide insight to help Clay with his knowledge of the game. Bob is a tremendous family man and treats his players like family. He is first class in every way possible.
–Randy Mefford, girls’ basketball coach, Gallatin County High School.
“The girls absolutely love him. He brings sort of a calmness with him.”
–Autumn Boblitt, Anderson County girls’ basketball parent.
“When I first heard of the diagnosis, my heart sank. Bob is very independent and takes care of others. I know he faces this head on and with a great attitude. He is logical in his planning but he is concerned how this is going to affect his wife, Linda, and their kids, Matthew and Sarah. I can’t tell you how often he babysits the grandchildren, which he adores.”
–Todd Gilley, former head coach at Henry County and Oldham County high schools and a close friend of Bob Osborne.
“I saw Bob at a pre-season scrimmage in November and it broke my heart to see him this way. … Bottom line, he is just good people! I’m glad Clay has extended this opportunity to Bob.”
— Mark Clinkenbeard, girls’ basketball coach, Walton-Verona High School.
“When I heard about his ALS diagnosis, I immediately called him and we had a heart-to-heart talk. As I expected, he was upbeat and he’s not going to be feeling sorry for himself. … There’s a lot of negativity in the world, but Bob will not let that affect him.”
— Randy Mefford, Gallatin County High School.