Playing for more than a win

Bob Osborne, center, is inducted into the Eighth Region Hall of Fame during the Girls’ Eighth Region Tournament at Owen County High School, March 2, 2019. At left is Owen County athletic director T.J. Wesselman and at right is former Henry County girls’ basketball coach Todd Gilley. (File photo by John Herndon)

Owen, Anderson girls open season with night to remember beloved coach

By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com

OWENTON, Ky. — If there was a silver lining around the COVID-19 cloud that delayed the Kentucky high school basketball season, it was found at Owen County High School Monday night.

The school wanted to honor Coach Bob Osborne with an ALS Awareness Night during the 2020-21 season and it wanted to do so when the Lady Rebels basketball team hosted Anderson County.

It all came about on Jan. 4.. Anderson defeated Owen, 46-34, in a rematch of last year’s Eighth Region semifinal, also won by Anderson. Lady Bearcat coach Clay Birdwhistell had said before Monday’s contest that it could be a preview of a March showdown that would determine the region’s representative in the Sweet 16. He’ll get few arguments from anyone who has followed the region over the last few years. 

Bob Osborne acknowledges the crowd after being inducted into the Eighth Region Hall of Fame on March 2, 2019. Mr. Osborne was battling ALS and would pass away nine months later. (File photo)

But the action had to wait a few minutes as Owen remembered Osborne, who had devoted his career to teaching and coaching at the school. He’d led the baseball and softball programs but must most well-known for guiding the Lady Rebels basketball program for 12 years.

After his retirement in 2017, Osborne sat out a year, but returned to the bench as an assistant coach at Anderson. However,  just before the 2018-19 campaign tipped off, Osborne was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, more commonly called ALS or “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

(I was privileged to write a feature story that appeared in The Anderson News, Dec. 19, 2018 and was reprinted at 110forChrist.com with permission. That story can be found here.)

Osborne remained on the sidelines through the 2018-19 season as Anderson went 27-7 and advanced to the regional semifinals. As long as he was able, he drove from Owenton to Lawrenceburg. Eventually friends accompanied him for the almost daily commute. 

Sadly,  the incurable disease continued to ravage his body and he died on December 14, 2019. Bob Osborne was 64.

Anderson County girls’ basketball coach Clay Birdwhistell and his team remember Bob Osborne prior to Monday’s game at Owen County. (Photo by John Herndon)

A member of the Owen County High School Athletic Hall of Fame, Osborne was buried wearing the school’s maroon and white, but a red, white and navy blue Anderson shirt was placed in his casket. Among the speakers at his funeral were Delmas Castle, for whom Osborne worked as an assistant coach at Owen and who Osborne succeeded, and Birdwhistell.

“It was natural for us to do this for our game against Anderson County,” said Owen athletic director T.J. Wesselman. “It was just a natural fit for us to choose this game as our ALS Awareness Night in honor of Bob.”

Wessleman noted that when basketball schedules had to be reconfigured because of COVID restrictions, things just worked out for Owen and Anderson to open the season with a night to honor their beloved coach and friend. Wesselman said the schools were already scheduled to meet on Jan. 4, the first night of play allowed under COVID restrictions, and neither wanted to change the date.

Such was the impact Osborne left. 

Wesselman says he saw Osborne’s influence after his family moved to Owen County when he was in the sixth grade.  “I never had him as a teacher but I was very good friends with his daughter, Sarah,” Wesselman recalls. “I spent a lot of time over at his house, watching movies or just hanging out. Then my senior year, I was Bob’s teacher’s aide.”

Wesselman said he would leave the high school and drive to Owen County Elementary School, where Osborne was teaching fourth grade for a period of work with the man who would become a local legend. 

Members of the Owen County girls’ basketball team and coach Amy Wesselman remember Coach Bob Osborne prior to Monday’s game with Anderson County. (Photo by John Herndon)

“As a student, I was his teacher’s aide,” Wesselman laughed. “Then after I finished college and came back to Owen County, I eventually became the athletic director. So I became his boss for five years, but I would never tell him I was his boss.”

As a fellow coach and administrator, Wesselman saw why Bob Osborne had become such a beloved figure. “I knew Bob long before I knew him as a coach,” he says. “I knew him as being a friend of his daughter. I knew him from being a teacher’s aide. I knew more about him before I knew him as a coach. You don’t get any better.”

Sarah Osborne Gregory, now a teacher in Shelby County, appeared in a pregame video, along with Osborne’s grandchildren, asking fans to donate to the ALS Association to end the terrible disease.

The video presented can be viewed here.

Birdwhistell, who was intently taking in her words, could only reflect on the lessons Osborne taught him as a coaching rival and friend, then as an assistant. 

“I think about Bob every day,” he said. “COVID has been so difficult to deal with since we were sent home from the state tournament. When I want to get frustrated, I think of how he told me he was choosing to be positive. I really try to be positive for my kids in a very difficult time. I think that is something I took from him and one way I can honor his life.”

Wesselman saw that positive outlook as ALS eventually claimed Bob Osborne. “His mentality never changed. He was fighting this disease and he kept that positive outlook.”

As a writer, I first met Osborne in post-game interviews. He was always first class, professional and complimentary of the Anderson teams I covered. When I prepared basketball previews both for The Anderson News and The Cats’ Pause, I knew I could count on Bob Osborne to give me much more than I could ever use. That is a writer’s dream!

“He was a scouting machine,” Wesselman laughed. “He knew every player on every team in the region. He knew everybody and was always prepared. That’s the kind of person he was.”

But over the years I got to know that as much as Bob Osborne loved Owen County, he loved his Lord even more. As I visited him in his home several times during the final year of his life, I didn’t have to ask why Bob Osborne was such a beloved figure.

He simply lived his deep faith in Jesus to the very end.

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