I just hope Rick Sallee knew how much I appreciated him as so much more than someone on the sidelines
By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com
I got to know Rick Sallee as a basketball coach. I worked with him later in his role as a high school athletic director. But I will remember Rick as a friend whose love for Jesus Christ showed in everything he did.
Rick Sallee passed away Thursday night after battling cholangiocarcinoma for nearly five years. Never did I hear him complain of his plight, even though he was in what should have been the prime of his life when he was diagnosed with what is commonly called bile duct cancer. He was at the age to be looking forward to watching his three children graduate from high school or college and starting their own families.
Rick never got to do that. But he never, ever complained.
The last few times I saw him, he was obviously weakened from round after round of treatments in Lexington, where he lived, or in Houston, where he’d frequently fly for visits to the renowned M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Yet, I never heard him wonder why cancer had attacked him, someone who had dedicated his life to making the world around him better.
Instead, one of the last texts I got from him, sent earlier this year, answered my query into how he had been feeling. “Hanging in there. A lot of fatigue but still kicking,” he said.
That was Rick. Upbeat. I could feel his smile in the text. We knew he was very sick but we also knew he was going to fight with everything he had and perhaps then some.
It’s just how Rick Sallee lived.
Rick had come to Anderson County High School as an assistant basketball coach and English teacher — that last detail is very important, so remember that! — when I first met him. Given that in my job as sports editor of The Anderson News, most of my interviews were with Head Coach Glen Drury, Rick and I talked much more informally. We’d share funny stories about Drury, about some of the crazy things we’d seen in high school basketball or just talk about life itself.
And he told me early on about the disappointment he lived that night when he was a basketball player at Pikeville High School. “We were in the regional semifinals and lost on a half-court shot to the Paintsville team that had John Pelphrey and Joey Couch,” he would tell me several times over the years.
More than 30 years later, you could still feel a combination of disappointment and amazement at how a chance to reach the Sweet 16 had ended.
He understood kids. He understood high school sports and the emotions involved. And despite being an intense competitor, he knew his real success would be measured long after he stepped off the floor the final time.
And I picked up on the fact that Rick Sallee was a man of deep faith. He wasn’t the Bible-thumping type, but that faith ran through his veins and was apparent in all he did. It was just one of those situations that Jesus described in Matthew 7:20, “by their fruit you will recognize them.”
Rick Sallee was a basketball guy through and through. He loved the game and, as assistant coach, was the perfect right-hand man to Drury, whose on-court intensity was legendary. Sallee was just as intense but just appeared more laid back. As Brandon Phillips, who graduated from Anderson in 2004 told me in a Messenger chat earlier this week, “Sallee was always the guy we went to when Coach Drury was all over us. Lol. (He was) a player’s coach, man.”
He loved basketball, taught the game and lived the game. There were many nights when it was just Drury, Sallee, longtime Anderson assistant Jimmy Young and me talking hoops in the Anderson equipment room/basketball office next to the Bearcat locker room. We’d talk about the game we’d just seen, one coming up or what was going on around the area. Those chats, sometimes lasting more than an hour after a game, would turn out to be some of the most fun times I ever had working for a newspaper.
And, of course, I often asked Sallee how anyone who had grown up in a Kentucky Wildcat town like Pikeville, teach in a Big Blue hotbed like Anderson County and live just a few miles from Rupp Arena in Lexington and still be a North Carolina fan. He’d laugh and have a funny comeback.
But outside his family, there was probably no one more excited than me when Rick Sallee became Anderson’s athletic director in 2008. It was because of what I had come to see out of that “player’s coach.” He’d had his team’s back and I suspected that would now be the signature of the Anderson athletic department.
I believe it was. And still is for every Anderson team.
I knew Rick Sallee the basketball coach was a great guy. Watching him as athletic director, I came to see he was much more. He was special.
Make that SPECIAL.
Rick wanted the best for every kid who put on an Anderson uniform, regardless of the sport yet he also understood the constraints of financial reality. I knew first-hand that Rick wished he could take a magic wand and make everything top-of-the-line for Anderson kids, his kids. We often talked about the need for better facilities or amenities that were only dreams.
We even had a running joke that if either of us won the lottery we would fund “The Birdie Dome” or “Tyrone Sports Palace and Complex,” referring to a couple of small communities in Anderson County.
It was just a way that Rick dealt with the increasing demands and decreasing revenues of scholastic sports.
You see, the high school athletic director’s job is much different from those major college administrators. The guys toiling in high schools are doing the unseen work, filling out form after form after form for the Kentucky High School Athletic Association along with local, state and federal government. They have to ensure that the school provides opportunities but remains in compliance with Title IX regulations. They are the guys at the gym or playing field three or four hours before game time and they was the last to leave, often pushing midnight. They are the guys who greet the opponents and take care of the officials. They handle media requests and make sure operations keep running smoothly.
They also have to deal with parents who believe their child’s sport is not getting a fair shake compared to other sports or are not getting the resources they need or deserve, regardless of finances.
And, in Sallee’s case, it meant doing that while carrying a teaching load.
It’s not a job for anyone.
But it was in that role that I saw how special Rick really was. You see, his time as an athletic administrator coincided with a time in which local sports journalism had begun to evolve from a focus on game stories to more features or investigative type stories. In addition, the explosion of social media meant that everything was under tighter scrutiny and doing that digging was part of my job.
As a result, I probably wrote more hard-hitting sports news stories during Rick’s tenure as athletic director than all my other years as sports editor combined. It was just a reflection of the changing world around us and it meant I often spent as much time with the athletic director as with coaches. Instead of fighting a brighter spotlight, Rick Sallee was always helpful. He might not always have the answer but he would try to get it for me.
If there was a behind-the-scenes story that would help my coverage he would give it to me before I learned through the grapevine. Suffice it to say, he took care of me in more ways than I could ever outline in this space.
And because of that, I tried to take care of him. While I never withheld information, I made sure I included his explanations to shed light on something that could have had a dark connotation.
For that, Rick often told me, “I appreciate you.”
And yes, I appreciated Rick Sallee too. I just hope he knew how deep that appreciation was.
But I appreciated him for more than being a basketball coach or athletic director.
Remember earlier in this column when I noted he was an English teacher? That hit home maybe more than anything Rick Sallee did as a coach or administrator.
It was during the time one of my daughters, Sarah, was a student at Anderson County. She was never into sports, rarely went to games and didn’t say much about her teachers. One day I was at a Bearcat practice when Sallee told me he had Sarah as a student in a literature class.
I remember asking her about the class. She simply smiled and said, “Mr. Sallee is awesome!”
Yes! He really was.