Cornbread touched countless lives by calling games over 60 years and living with integrity
By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com
I never talked with Cornbread about how to live a good life. I didn’t have to.
With Cornbread, there was never any doubt. And what Cornbread was made of was apparent to basketball players, coaches and fans almost every night from late November to mid-March.
Integrity. Service to others. Giving your best regardless of the circumstances. And they were the basic ingredients in Cornbread’s recipe for successfully officiating games for 60 years.
James “Cornbread” Stethen, one of Kentucky’s best-known basketball officials, passed away Sunday after a battle with cancer. He leaves a legacy of working the hardwood, giving respect and remembering the work he loved was about games young people play.
“I just heard it. I really hate that. He was such a great guy,” former Anderson County High School coach Glen Drury said when I called to ask if he’d heard the news.
Drury got his start as a head coach in 1986, but by that time, Cornbread had been calling games for 27 years. “He was doing it for the right reasons,” Drury remembered.
Those reasons were the young men and young women playing a game. A select few will go on to play college basketball and occasionally one will have the opportunity to play for pay.
But most are there for the same reason Cornbread was. They just love the game.
“The best part of officiating is the kids, it’s all about the kids,” Stethen said in an interview with The Trimble Banner that ran on Sept. 4. “The kids are why you keep coming back year after year.”
That was Cornbread.
I have heard several accounts of how he got the nickname “Cornbread” but he claimed he had no idea how the moniker stuck.
What is sure is that Jim Stethen long had the reputation as one of the state’s top officials and was often picked to work high profile events, including a dozen state tournaments. While a year of calling college basketball was on his resume, Cornbread’s heart was at the high school level.
It was about the kids. All about the kids.
He’d been a standout athlete himself, being a part of the 1955 Trimble County Raiders who went 27-6 — the best record in school history — but lost to Shelbyville in the regional final. He’d also been part of a state championship cross country team at Trimble and later became a fast-pitch softball legend, playing around the nation well into his 60s.
But around Kentucky, he was best known as a man in the striped shirt. He also umpired baseball and softball through the years.
It was all about giving back to kids.
If you ever watched Cornbread call a game, you just knew it. He sometimes chatted with players during breaks, usually with a smile on his face. And in more than 34 years of working basketball games in the Eighth Region, I can’t remember a cross word about Cornbread.
That’s almost unheard of. He wore a striped shirt but few threw ridicule his way. That speaks to the kind of respect Cornbread commanded and deserved.
And he did so naturally.
Over the years, I came to laugh about the first time I remember seeing Cornbread call a basketball game. It was January 1974 and I was a sophomore in high school, serving as manager for the Anderson County Bearcats. We had just cracked the Top 25 in the Litkenhous Ratings but were on the road to tangle with Bullitt Central, the defending regional champion and preseason favorite to repeat. It was undoubtedly the biggest game in the region that night, so you knew you were going to get the best officials out there.
Sometime during the game, a call went against us and our coach, Wayne King, let Mr. Stethen know in no uncertain terms that he’d missed the call. Cornbread slapped a technical on him. A few minutes later, someone on our bench said something and Cornbread signalled another “T.” At the time, it took three technicals to get disqualified so everything worked out and we made it out with a win.
But 46 years later I laugh because I came to realize that Cornbread was one of those officials who gave plenty of rope and didn’t get easily riled. If he slapped a technical on someone, chances are it was deserved. I came to know that if he said, “That’s enough,” the line had already been crossed.
It rarely got to that point. He knew there were rules to be enforced, but he was also dealing with people. It’s the combo that made Cornbread one of the best for years.
After being away from high school sports for a while, I was a bit surprised that Cornbread was still around when I started covering Anderson Bearcat sports in 1985. I’d sometimes talk with Cornbread before games and grew to have enormous respect for the man with the odd nickname. Most of all, I came to realize he really was there for the kids.
And I knew that if Cornbread was working a game, there would be few qualms about officiating even though it’s impossible for players, coaches and referees to see eye-to-eye on every call. Each is seeing a fast-paced game through different lenses.
But when Cornbread called a game, there was little doubt that the game would be called fairly and everyone would be treated with respect. That’s integrity.
And it’s all anyone can reasonably ask.
One game I distinctly remember Cornbread calling was the 1997 Eighth Region final between Anderson County and Oldham County. Cornbread teamed up with another veteran, Dean Dyke for that one. It was intense but extremely clean with Anderson holding off a late Oldham rally for a 55-53 win. And it was one of those games where the officiating was at the level expected for a regional final. I ran into Stethen and Dyke as they were leaving Henry County High School that night and commended them on a job well done.
They smiled and seemed to genuinely appreciate the comment.
Ten years later, Anderson honored that team at a game. As fate would have it, Cornbread was calling that one too. I snapped his picture and included it in our game coverage for the next edition of The Anderson News.I just thought of it as a cool coincidence and I could, in a small way, recognize a job well done.
Shortly thereafter, I was working another game to which Cornbread had been assigned. He saw me before the game, cracked a joke, and simply asked if I could send him a copy.
Of course I obliged.
It was part of the camaraderie that can develop among those who regularly work high school sporting events. Cornbread had been calling Eighth Region games since Eisenhower was in the White House and had affected so many people in his work.
But over the last few years, it had become obvious that Cornbread was slowing down. He’d been fighting cancer and didn’t look particularly good. The rumor mill was churning that the Eighth Region legend would soon be hanging up his whistle so when he was picked to work the Anderson County – Shelby County semifinal in the girls’ 30th District Tournament, I made sure to snap several pictures.
Little did I know what a fighter he would be, even in his early 80s.
One day short of two years later, I was attending Anderson’s last regular-season home game, against Louisville Central. Cornbread was there for what is believed to be the next-to-last game of his illustrious career. He looked great and I made it a point to hang around after the game to say hello.
Unfortunately, life can quickly change.
Late in the summer I had heard he was not doing well. According to the previously referenced Trimble Banner story, Cornbread had a couple of health episodes at his home and a tumor was found on the left side of his brain. After radiation treatments, surgery was unsuccessful in removing all of the mass. He took the maximum amount of chemotherapy possible but eventually cancer silenced Cornbread’s whistle.
James Stethen won’t be forgotten. That would be almost impossible around the Eighth Region. However, the region’s officials got together this summer for a golf scramble to raise funds for scholarships awarded to regional basketball players.To make sure this giant of high school sports would be remembered, they renamed the award the James “Cornbread” Stethen Scholarship.
But even more than the scholarship, Cornbread’s legacy will continue in the life he lived and the lives he touched.
Players, coaches, fans and media remember “Cornbread” on social media
“Cornbread was an Eighth Region legend. Every time you seen him it was always about staying around high school sports for the kids. With him it was always doing it for the kids. Prayers for his family.”
— Bruce Blanton, former Shelby County girls’ basketball coach and former assistant boys’ basketball coach at Spencer County and Henry County (via Facebook)
“Good man and good, consistent official. He always offered his best for the players. He was respected by all.”
— Bill Pickett, former Anderson County girls’ basketball coach (via Facebook)
“What a guy! I loved him during my playing days. High school basketball will miss him.”
— J.D. Shelburne, country music singer and former Spencer County basketball player (via Facebook)
“A great person who contributed greatly to the Eighth Region teams and athletes.”
— Todd Thompson, Henry County fan, parent and photographer (via Facebook)
“What a blessing I got to share so many good times with him as a player, coach,and fan.”
–– Keith Blackburn, assistant athletic director at South Oldham High School, former head coach and star player at Eminence High School (via Facebook)
“Cornbread never overreacted to anyone or anything…very level headed and fair.”
— Derek Shouse, Anderson County school administrator and former assistant coach (via Facebook)
“Ky. basketball lost one of the great ambassadors of our game. RIP Mr Cornbread!”
–– Scott Chalk, head basketball coach at Paul L. Dunbar High School, former head coach at Williamstown, Frankfort and Franklin County high schools (via Twitter)
“Every player & every 8th Region coach from 1978 to 2000 knows immediately who Cornbread was. He seemed to do a game every night.”
— Centre College basketball coach Greg Mason, who played high school ball at Shelby County (via Twitter)
“He never wanted to know the score. He’d ask how much time was left in a quarter at the scorer’s table, but never wanted to know the score to maintain that integrity. He was the best to officiate basketball games for many decades.”
–– Twitter user BBN for the Win, in reply to John Herndon