The man who broke a young fan’s heart

Ray Vencill, left, was happy when my wife, Stephanie, and I visited in the summer of 2017.
(Note: Ray Vencill died on June 28. His legacy and Christian influence on those he coached and taught will continue for years. This story appeared in the June 28, 2017 edition of The Anderson News after an afternoon visit with Mr. Vencil at his home in Elizabethtown.)
By John Herndon,
     It’s funny how the twists and turns of life give you a much different perspective on things that happen.
     And most of all, it can give a different look at the people involved.
     I was reminded of that again recently when my wife, Stephanie, suggested we visit one of her old friends she had not seen in some time, Hall of Fame basketball coach Ray Vencill.
     If you are under the age of 50, that name might mean little to you. But if you grew up in the 60’s or 70’s, chances are you know quite a bit about him.

     “Do you know Ray Vencill?” my father-in-law asked the first time Stephanie took me to meet her parents.
     “Well, I don’t know him,” I said, “but I know who he is.”
     That was good enough for my wife’s dad, who had been a neighbor of Mr. Vencill and his wife, Betty, in Elizabethtown, where Vencill ended his great coaching career. It was a longtime friendship that had begun when they were students at Eastern Kentucky University.
     But I knew of Ray Vencill as the man who broke a young basketball fan’s heart.
     If you were around Lawrenceburg during the 1969-70 basketball season, you already know exactly what I am talking about.
     It was to be Anderson County’s final season as a member of the 11th Region. The Bearcats, led by junior Jimmy Dan Conner, had established themselves as one of the top teams in the region and a legitimate threat to head to Louisville’s Freedom Hall for the state tournament.
     The Bearcats’ biggest threats? Perhaps the Lexington high schools — the Bearcats had gone 3-0 against them — or defending regional champ Richmond Madison, coached by Ray Vencill.
     As fate would have it, Anderson hosted Madison in the final game of the regular season in what might have been the state’s marquee matchup that night. Before an overflow crowd, the Bearcats became the regional favorite with a 94-82 win.
     “I remember we were ahead about 10 points most of the game. They had an excellent team,” Lawrenceburg resident Tom Smith remembered last week. Smith was a starting guard on that great Bearcat team.
      Two weeks later, Anderson and Madison met again in the 11th Region semifinals at Lexington’s Memorial Coliseum. I was a 12-year-old at home, sick and having to listen to the radio broadcast. Through 32 agonizing minutes the teams battled to a draw. Three minutes of overtime settled nothing. Finally, Madison prevailed, 81-79 in two overtimes.
Madison would go on to the Sweet 16 where the Purples made it to the championship game before falling to Male, 70-69.
      Anderson fans know that the Bearcats made it through the Eighth Region the following year and made their own run to the state final before losing to Male.
     When Stephanie and I visited Mr. Vencill two weeks ago, I asked him about that epic game against the Bearcats in 1970.
     He kind of chuckled and said, “When I was coaching, I didn’t remember too many games because I was getting ready for the next one. I remember that game over at Anderson at lot more because we got beat in that one.”
     We both laughed. True competitors would readily understand.
     What most around Anderson County did not know were the close ties between Upchurch, the Bearcat coach, and Vencill, who had been teammates at Eastern, winning the Ohio Valley Conference in 1959 before losing to Louisville in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
     “I don’t recall the players being especially aware of how good of friends Ray Vencill and Coach Upchurch were,” Smith said. “We knew they played together, but were really not aware of their relationship,” he continued.
     The common thread was Upchurch and Vencill had played for Anderson County native Paul McBrayer and their teams reflected McBrayer’s philosophy of being fundamentally sound and tough.
     On the court they were fierce competitors. Off, they were best of friends.
     And while at Eastern, Vencill was also a teammate of an Anderson County resident, Western High grad Bruce Springate. “Bruce was a good basketball player. He was slick,” Vencil smiled. “He was thin but just knew how to play. He would make a play and you didn’t know how it happened.”
     And that brings us full circle.
     Ray Vencill, you see, will be inducted into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame on July 22. In addition to those great Richmond Madison teams, he led Elizabethtown to three state tournaments, including another runner-up finish in 1972, before going into administration.
     Among the others to go into the Hall of Fame that night will be former Kentucky Colonel Darel Carrier, former Vanderbilt star Phil Cox, and former Tennessee star and current Kentucky women’s assistant coach Kyra Elzy.
      The list also includes Robert Brooks, the star of those great Madison teams.
And Jack Upchurch, who is to be recognized for his accomplishments as a player at Wayne County.
     “It means a lot to me to go in with Jack,” Vencill said. “The year before Jack died, I was in the hospital in Louisville. One day, I looked up and it was Jack. He came up to see me and said a prayer for me.”
     We talked some more and somehow, I felt that this man I saw as a villain almost 50 years before was much different than the one I’d seen on the opposing bench. He’d left a coaching legacy that was far more than wins and losses and was the type of person who makes high school sports worthwhile.
      My wife had told me, “Mr. Vencill is one of the kindest men you will meet.”
She was right.
(This column appeared in the June 28, 2017  edition of The Anderson News.)

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