Mike Harris was just about to start his senior year at Owen County (Kentucky) High School in August of 1965 when he received some heartbreaking news.
His basketball coach, Bill Smith, was leaving to take the head coaching job at Corbin (Kentucky).
Harris went to the home of Smith and his wife, Shirley, also known as “Squirrels,” to say goodbye.
“We were all in tears, and I left their home trying to figure out how I could get my parents to move to Corbin, Kentucky, because I wanted to go with him,” Harris said.
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As it turned out, Harris and the Smiths didn’t see each other for more than 50 years. Until just a few months ago.
But that’s not the only former player with which Bill Smith has been reunited in the past year.
Smith thought Harris and Larry Rowe lived in Indianapolis when Smith moved to Columbus on April 29, 2016. Last fall, Smith was getting a haircut at Coach’s Cutz barber shop and mentioned something about Harris and Rowe to “Coach” Ray Gipson, who informed Smith that his former players lived not in Indianapolis, but in Columbus.
Shortly after, Smith went to visit Rowe where Rowe works as the pastor of Second Baptist Church. Then, Smith and Harris met at the barber shop.
“I came here one day, and there’s a guy sitting there, and he had a book up in front of him, and I didn’t pay any attention to him,” Smith said. “I was talking to Coach. He was supposed to be getting a hold of Mike. He went into the back room and wasn’t gone 5 seconds. He said, ‘Mike’s sitting right there.”
Playing for ‘The Baron’
Smith grew up in Walton, Kentucky, about 20 minutes south of Cincinnati and 20 minutes north of Owenton, Kentucky, where he would later coach Harris and Rowe at Owen County.As a player, Smith was good enough to earn a scholarship to the University of Kentucky, where he would play for “The Baron,” Adolph Rupp.
“Everyone asks, ‘Was (Rupp) tough?’” Smith said. “I said, ‘Whatever you’ve heard is true, but you can add more to it.’”
Smith played at Kentucky from 1954 to 58. In 1958, his senior year, the Wildcats beat an Elgin Baylor-led Seattle team at Freedom Hall in Louisville to win the NCAA championship.
As talented as Rupp’s team was, Smith didn’t get much playing time.
“People asked me, ‘How many points did you score?’” Smith said. “I said, ‘It’s kind of hard to score from the bench.’”
Although much older, Rupp often was compared to former Indiana University coach Bob Knight. In the simplest sense, Rupp is to Kentucky basketball what Bob Knight is to Indiana basketball.
Smith said he learned a great deal from Rupp.
“You learn discipline, you learn heard work and you learn a little bit about religion,” Smith said. “He always said when you did something wrong that you just violated the Eleventh Commandment: ‘Thou Shalt Not Be Stupid.’”
Period of integration
Smith, who is white, came to Owen County in 1958 just as the school was desegregated. Some of his players, including Rowe and Harris, are black.“When schools integrated, we got to know one another,” Rowe said. “There wasn’t any difference. There may have been an undercurrent, but we never were rebelled upon. Now, we have so much difficulty with cultural differences and racial differences. But where we grew up, it was like, ‘We’re kids.’ We grew up together.”
Harris moved to Owenton from Lexington in 1963. He wasn’t sure what to expect.
But Harris echoed Rowe’s sentiments, and he credited the smooth transition to Smith and the other teachers.
“We didn’t know what was going to be happening. But we went into Owen County, and we didn’t have any trouble because of people like (Smith),” Harris said. “We would go to coach as easy as we would go to our parents. We didn’t know how things were going to be. It could have been a heck of a lot worse, but our high school experience was great.”
Smith told the story about one of his players coming into his office to confess that he had gotten a girl pregnant. Harris shared that it was a black player, and that player trusted him enough to talk to him about something as private as that.
Harris also said that he never started smoking because when he was in high school, Smith told him if I wanted to be an athlete, he had to take care of his body.
“We lived in a community that we raised tobacco for a living,” Harris said. “Everybody smoked. But we didn’t smoke.”
Rowe was mainly a football and baseball player. Although he didn’t play varsity basketball, he was a JV player when Smith had both the varsity and JV after his assistant got called into military service.
Some of the traits Smith learned from Rupp, he passed along to players such as Rowe and Harris.
“We learned a lot of discipline, and it affects us today,” Rowe said. “You have to be persistent if you want everything done right. That carried over into our lives. Even today, I use some of the skills that I learned back then. You put all that together, and it makes you a decent person.”
Moving to Columbus
Rowe, 71, was the first of the trio to land in Columbus. He moved in 1965 at the age of 18, just after graduating from high school.After working at Cummins for 30 years, Rowe went on a different path. He attended Purdue for 2 1/2 years, then seminary at Simmons Bible College for four years and then earned a graduate degree in ministry from Martin University.
Besides being pastor of Second Baptist Church for the past 12 years, Rowe has been involved with the Love Chapel and is chaplain for the Columbus Police Department.
Harris, 70, graduated from Eastern Kentucky University and had been living in Louisville before coming to Columbus in 1971 to work for Cummins Engine Company at its tech center. He retired in 2007.
Smith, 81, spent only four years in Corbin before returning to his hometown of Walton and working for the Electric Cooperative in Owen County. He was there for 29½ years before retiring in 1998.
Since then, Shirley Smith has had a stroke, and Bill Smith has had a couple of heart attacks and some other illnesses. Their son Scott and his wife live in Columbus, and they were going to Bill and Shirley’s home in northern Kentucky every other week to take care of their medicine.
Last year, Scott convinced his parents to move to Columbus.
When Harris, Rowe and the Smiths met again Tuesday at the barber shop, they talked about wanting to reunite with two more former Owen County players. Pastor Ray Ware and Joe Smith live in Indianapolis
Shirley Smith remembered Harris coming to see them on the eve of their departure for Corbin 51 1/2 years ago.
“He came in and sat down with us and said, ‘Coach, I sure hate to see you go,’” she said. “I cried, (Bill Smith) cried and then (Harris) cried. We all cried before he left. Owenton was a very special town. I cried all the way to Corbin. I started crying when (Harris) came to see us, and I didn’t stop.”
[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”The Owen County boys” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]
Name: Bill Smith
High school: Walton-Verona (Kentucky)
Worked: Teacher and coach at Owen County (Kentucky) and Corbin (Kentucky) and as customer service representative for Owen County Electric Cooperative
Name: Larry Rowe
High school: Owen County
Colleges: Purdue, Simmons Bible College, Martin University
Worked: Cummins; now is pastor at Second Baptist Church
Name: Mike Harris
High school: Owen County
College: Eastern Kentucky