Morehead’s Day in the Sun

Morehead's Kenneth Faried led the big upset

Want to know a little bit more about Morehead? Of course, Billy Reed has a perspective on the Eagles’ that you didn’t. We’re proud here at LouisvilleKY.com to present his thoughts on the Eagles’ victory over U of L. Read more of Billy’s thoughts at BillyReedSays.

by Billy Reed

It’s too bad for longtime Kentucky hoops fans that the greatest victory in Morehead’s history had to come at the expense of Louisville. Then again, from the Eagles’ standpoint, it made their remarkable achievement just a little sweeter. Had the 13th-seeded Eagles upset any other No. 4 seed, it wouldn’t have been quite as fulfilling.

Like every other team in the commonwealth not called UK or U of L, Morehead gets short shrift in the recognition department. Even in Morehead, the Eagles aren’t as popular as Coach John Calipari’s Wildcats. Although the Eagles belong to the same division as the Cats and Cards, they aren’t member of the same VIP club.

Of course, that’s nothing new. The Morehead States and Georgetown Colleges of the hoops world have played second fiddle – or third, fourth, and fifth – to the Cats since Adolph Rupp was a pup. And Rupp wasn’t about to have one of them challenge his program’s preeminence so he refused to play them in the regular season.

Until the mid-1950s, when U of L made its presence felt in the big time by winning the 1956 NIT, the Cardinals were more or less on Morehead’s level. Heck, U of L once belonged to the Ohio Valley Conference, along with Morehead, Eastern, Western, and Morehead State.

To his credit, U of L Coach Peck Hickman, unlike Rupp, kept playing the other state schools even as the Cardinals moved up the college hoops ladder. And when Denny Crum continued that tradition after taking the Cards’ job in 1971, it endeared him to the coaches at the state schools. Unlike Rupp and successor Joe B. Hall, Crum was willing to give the state programs an occasional cameo on the big stage.

The growth of TV basketball dealt the state schools a terrible blow. Back in the 1950s or ‘60s, when a Morehead or an Eastern Kentucky home game conflicted with a UK game, fans would come to support the local school and bring transistor radios to follow the Cats.

But when TV began showing just about every UK game, it became more convenient for fans in Morehead, Richmond, Bowling Green, Georgetown, and Murray to just stay home and watch the Cats.

When Rick Pitino became UK’s coach in 1989, he adopted the Crum model instead of the Rupp one and began scheduling non-conference games against the state schools. Pitino continued the tradition when he succeeded Crum at U of L in 2001. He knew that even if a Morehead or an Eastern happened to pull an upset, it would not be more than a blip on the radar screen. By then the Cards, like the Cats, operated at a level of the hoops world that the Moreheads and Easterns could only dream about.

To their credit, the folks at Morehead, Eastern, and Murray always have accepted their role in the hoops worlds. They acknowledge the bigness of the Cats and Cards without jealousy or bitterness. And yet, sometimes, when they have a player or a win that goes virtually ignored by the media obsessed with UK and U of L, they can’t help but feel a little under-appreciated. But they truck on, hoping that one day they will have their day in the sun.

For Morehead, that day came Thursday in Denver. Beautifully prepared by Coach Donnie Tyndall, the Eagles jumped out to a 7-0 lead against the Cards in the first round of the NCAA tournament and never backed down until, at the end, they had a 62-61 victory that rocked the college hoops world and had Dick Vitale’s head bobbling like it was ready to fall off.

It was Morehead’s first NCAA win since 1984, when the Eagles became a footnote to NCAA tournament history when officials used a TV tape for the first time to check a call.

Coached by Wayne Martin, now the head of WKYT-27 in Lexington, the Eagles were playing North Carolina A&T in Dayton, and A & T tried to send the wrong free-throw shooter to the line. The officials asked announcers Tom Hammond and Larry Conley if they could review the replay. They said yes, since there was no precedent, and the A&T plot was foiled.

The Eagles were fairly regular NCAA participants in the 1950s and early ‘60s, back when Bobby Laughlin was coaching outstanding teams built around the likes of Steve Hamilton, Dan Swartz, and Granny Williams. But it was bigger than any victory in Eagles history because it came on national TV against a highly ranked opponent form a power conference that just happened to be from the same state.

Badly as I felt for Pitino and his overachieving Cardinals, who play in a new arena that has four times more seats (22,000) than Morehead does citizens (5,914), I had to feel happy for all my friends from Morehead. I covered the state colleges for The Herald-Leader in the early 1960s, back when Adron Doran was president at Morehead and naming every new dormitory after his wife, Mignon.

When Laughlin retired, he was replaced by Bob Wright, who coached Ashland High to the 1961 state title. I still say that team was the state’s best ever, and one of its stars, guard Harold Sargent, went to Morehead a year ahead of Wright. During Wright’s tenure, Morehead integrated its program with Willie “Hobo” Jackson and Lamar Green.

I got close to the Eagles again in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, when my friend Martin left Pikeville College to take the Morehead job. I had known Wayne since he played for Letcher Norton at Clark County High. His 1984 NCAA team was built around Earl Harrison.

Before one season in the early ‘80s, when I was sports editor of The Courier-Journal, the Eagles conducted a preseason scrimmage in Shelbyville with me “coaching” one team and Mike Johnson of The Herald coaching the other. Despite having the talents of Rocky Adkins, now Majority Leader of the Kentucky House of Representatives, my squad lost. However, Wayne still gave me a plaque, which I cherish to this day.

Morehead got some national publicity in the early 1990s thanks to Dick Fick, who turned out to be a much better showman than he was a coach. When Fick threw himself on the floor and lay prostrate after a particularly questionable call, ESPN introduced the “Dick Fick Award” for coaching histrionics.

Fick was succeeded in 1997 by Kyle Macy, the iconic UK star who led the Wildcats to the 1978 NCAA title. For awhile, the Macy magic produced better attendance and improved results. Unfortunately, however, Kyle was unable to recruit players nearly as talented as he was, although guard Ricky Minard has to be mentioned on any list of the Eagles’ all-time best.

After dropping to 4-23 in 2005-’06, Macy resigned and was replaced by Tyndall, who had the great foresight to recruit a kid from New Jersey named Kenneth Fareid. He turned out to be a 6-foot-7 rebounding machine, another Dennis Rodman without the dresses, and he’s the guy who led the Eagles to their historic upset of the Cardinals.

All Fareid has done in four seasons at Morehead is become the leading rebounder in NCAA history. Tyndall says he has a “great motor,” meaning he’s relentless in pursuit of the ball. Even in Denver’s high altitude, even with taller U of L players trying to block him off the boards, Fareid just kept on going, snagging rebounds that he had no right to get.

I’m sure that Morehead’s victory was as wildly celebrated out in the state as it was mourned in Jefferson County. For a day, at least, the headlines belonged to one of the little guys. Heck, even the Herald-Leader had to gibe Morehead’s win over U of L equal billing with UK’s narrow escape against Princeton in its first-round game.

Finally, I feel it is my journalistic duty to wonder if the Eagles might have won one for The Hawpster. Let me explain.

A year or so ago, some political pundits were surprised when Governor Steve Beshear appointed David Hawpe, former chief editorial writer at The Courier-Journal, to Morehead’s Board of Regents. After all, Morehead depends on the coal industry for support and Hawpe was a staunch advocate for miners and the environment during his editorial career.

Beshear and Hawpe were students together at UK in the early 1960s, and Hawpe, in particular, loved Rupp’s basketball teams as much as he detested the excesses in Charlie Bradshaw’s football program. He’s such a UK hoops fan, in fact, that he has never quite recovered from the Wildcats’ loss to the Cards in the 1983 “Dream Game” in Knoxville.

Maybe Hawpe brought his hoops karma to Morehead State, and maybe he didn’t, but it’s a fact that the Eagles sent the Cardinals to the sidelines yesterday and the Cats lived to play another day.

Make what you will of it.