Successful in many ways, PRP coach Larry Kihnley impacts lives by living his faith
By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com
There was just something about that first time I attended a basketball game at Pleasure Ridge Park High School.
It was back in December, 2005, when my high school coach at Anderson County, Wayne King, wanted to take me to watch the Panthers play one of their rivals, DeSales on a Friday night. King told me the place would be packed — it was — and he would introduce me to Panthers coach Dale Mabrey, who had played for King in middle school, and an assistant coach he had gotten to know, Larry Kihnley.
I don’t remember a lot about the game other than PRP pulled away late for a win. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association website says the final score was 67-56, but I remember the game being closer than that. And I remember hanging after the game as Mabrey and Kihnley took King, the PRP alum, and his guest to the Panther locker room to talk hoops.
Lots of hoops. Mainly Panther hoops from King to Randy Waddell to Derrick Wilcox to Andy Penick to that year’s team, which made the state’s Final Four. And the small-town sports editor who covered everything from truck pulling to the KHSAA Sweet 16, and then some, made some unlikely acquaintances.
I would run into the PRP staff at the Sweet 16 and talked with them at length when Anderson County played PRP twice in less than three weeks in December of 2010. I even remember running into Kihnley once while shopping in Louisville.
Of course, we stopped and talked hoops. Lots of hoops.
It had been a while since I had talked with Larry Kihnley, but I reconnected with him when I saw his name pop up on Facebook. I sent a friend request, he accepted, and I couldn’t help but be amazed at the passion he had for PRP basketball, always promoting the Panthers on social media. When he ascended to the head coaching job following Mabrey’s retirement from the sidelines a year ago, I paid attention.
I asked Kihnley about attending another PRP game and he graciously put me on his guest list when the Panthers hosted Oldham County on Jan. 28. Oldham, ranked in the state’s Top 10 at the time, held off a furious PRP rally that night to win, 79-73. But as I watched, I realized what a wonderful job Kihnley was doing, both on the court and impacting the lives of young men.
We had planned to get together for an interview but the coronavirus pandemic changed our plans this week. Instead of meeting at a restaurant along Dixie Highway, we talked by Facebook Messenger.
Regardless of the medium, two things are certain: Larry Kihnley’s love for the Pleasure Ridge Park Panthers and his love for Christ show through in all he does..
Not many through the state expected PRP to finish at 21-10 in Kihnley’s first year running the show. The schedule was tough, as always, but the Panthers took their tenth consecutive 21st District title and advanced to the Sixth Region semifinals for the fourth straight year.
“I felt we had a very successful season,” Kihnley said. “Being in a program like we have at PRP, we have set the bar for ourselves really high and we expect a lot. We returned only one starter and a total of about 16 (points per game) as a team, but we still expected to have a winning season. What the kids did was amazing. We won 21 games against one of the toughest schedules we have ever faced. We beat Ballard on the road when they were No. 1 and led a Male team, who I think is the state’s best team, for much of the game.”
Male won that game, 86-74, extending a Panther losing streak to four games, but PRP recovered to win its next seven before losing to Fern Creek in the regional semis.
It was quite a debut for Kihnley, a 1981 PRP grad who had served as a Panther assistant coach since the early 1980s. The changes were minimal.
“I was an assistant at PRP for 36 years and this was my 37th with the program. Our other assistant, Mike Baxter, just finished his 36th season. We were the most experienced/inexperienced staff in the state,” Kihnley said with a laugh. “There was no real pressure once Bax and I decided to take the job. We had contributed a lot to the success the program had had over the years, so we just kind of continued to do what we had before.”
Mabrey, who finished with 937 wins in 37 years at PRP, did not attend any Panther games during his first season away from the bench.
While many assumed Kihnley would move to the head coaching job when Mabrey retired, he was not so sure. That’s where his deep faith came into play.
“I am strong in my faith,” he said. “When everything happened with Dale quitting, my initial reaction was that I was finished coaching. Our staff had accomplished, in my mind, everything a person would want to do in coaching. We had won big games, regional titles (13), Final Fours (7) and a state championship (1989).”
Kihnley was also on the sideline when PRP was state runner-up in 1986 and 1995.
“We were blessed with great players and getting to coach in a lot of great events, including the McDonald’s All-American Game,” Kihnley continued. “But after talking with our principal, Kim (Pehlke) Salyer, who was Miss Basketball in 1988, we talked on a Friday and I told her I was 60 percent sure I did not want to coach but I’d let her know Monday if I did want the job. She was FANTASTIC and told me to take as much time as I wanted, but I wanted to be fair to everyone if they needed to move forward in the search.”
But Kihnley now knows God wasn’t through with his work in southwestern Jefferson County.
“I prayed each day about the decision and Sunday in church, I felt like God revealed to me that this is where he wanted me. In addition, God knew that the only way I would have accepted a head coaching position, was for things to transpire as they did. I NEVER had any aspiration to be a head coach.”
Coach Kihnley is still impacting young lives by simply living as he believes God wants. There’s no preaching. It’s letting his faith live in everyday life.
“Being a Christian, I have never set out to do anything specific to display my faith,” Kihnley says. “I feel if you are truly a Christian, it will show in your daily walk, your conversations and how you conduct yourself. I am proud when people say, ‘I can tell you are a Christian, or a person of faith.’
“Our pastor, Johnny Spray, says it best: ‘If you have to tell people you are a Christian, you are doing something wrong,’ and I believe that.”
Even before his successful first season as coach of the PRP Panthers, it was clear that Larry Kihnley was doing something right.
Coronavirus disruptive, but Kihnley looks at the blessings
Even though Pleasure Ridge Park had been eliminated in the Sixth Region Tournament, chances are Larry Kihnley would have been in attendance for at least some of the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Sweet 16. And there’s little doubt he would have been glued to the television, watching the NCAA Tournament.
And, of course, he would have been there for the start of off-season workouts for the Pleasure Ridge Park Panthers sometime in the spring. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the high school and college tournaments and prompted the KHSAA to declare an indefinite “dead period” as the nation tries to minimize the effect of the disease.
Kihnley says that in spite of the changes in plans, he refuses to dwell on the negatives..
“While the coronavirus has been bad, with the death and unhappiness it has brought to so many, I think you also have to look at some of the positives,” he said. “With the quarantine, it has brought families back into our homes. It has taken away a lot of the distractions we face daily, and removed some of our ‘idols’, for me which was sports. It has restored cooking more meals at home, eating as a family together, and more interaction with our loved ones.
“Heck I bet the sale of jigsaw puzzles is up 100 percent. So I’m trying to look at the positives instead of the negatives.
“As for basketball, I think it will renew a lot of passion for a lot of people.”