Remembering Laurel County coach Rex Fredericks
(Feb. 13, 2015) — Two great men who happened to be basketball coaches died recently.
The passing of former North Carolina coach Dean Smith deservedly drew national attention. Michael Jordan expressed the feelings of many Tarheel players when he said that Smith was “more than a coach—he was a mentor, my teacher, my second father.”
Though he was not nearly as well-known as Smith, those of us who had the privilege to play for and learn from Rex Fredericks can understand Jordan’s sentiments. Rex, as we all called him, but not to his face, was a coaching giant in his own right, just on a much smaller stage than Smith’s.
Rex was a longtime coach in my home county of Laurel. He was recognized as one of those essential assistants, first for the fine Hazel Green High School Bullfrog boys teams through 1970, and then by the side of his close friend, Roy Bowling, for the legendary Laurel County High School girls teams that won three consecutive state championships in the late 1970s and another in 1987, and with another head coach for yet another girls title 1991.
In between those stints as a second in command Rex was the head coach of the boys’ team (which were then the only teams) at London Junior High after Hazel Green, Bush, Lily, and London consolidated to form Laurel County in 1971. It was there that I met him when I was, I believe, a fifth-grader convinced that I had an NBA future.
The best coaches are teachers, of course. Rex surely was. He taught the fundamentals that work in life as well as basketball.
Rex believed in and insisted upon hard work, hustle, and teamwork. He demanded your best at all times, did not play favorites, and was especially gifted at humbling any player foolish enough to get what he called “the big head.”
Some of the traits Rex instilled in his players seem, sadly, in short supply these days. Don’t just be on time; be early. You represent your family and school so be polite and present yourself well. You are not entitled to success, but must earn your place each and every day.
He practiced what he preached, too. Whether it was varnishing the gym floor, building a tall scaffold to replace lights high up in the gym ceiling, or coming to the gym in the wee hours of morning to fire the boiler so we could practice, Rex always and uncomplainingly did the inglorious behind-the-scenes hard work that allowed his boys to play in those pre-booster club days.
We would gather around him high in the stands at the high school games where he would conduct running tutorials on the action unfolding below. And, as is the case with so many coaches, his wife Althene was a valuable assistant of sorts in her own right who had to put up with a lot of other people’s kids hanging around her house.
Rex was the school guidance counselor, too. In that role he both emphasized the importance of academics and helped his teenage charges navigate the often choppy waters of adolescence in small town American during rapidly changing times.
Like many coaching careers and comeback attempts, Rex’s time on the sidelines did not end the way he would have wanted. He will nonetheless live on in the lives of his former players who will remember him as forever young and perhaps yelling at them to send a cutter through to determine if the defense was man-to-man or zone.
Henry Adams famously and rightly said, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. I will be forever grateful for Rex’s influence on me, as well as for that of other fine coaches like Jack Cupp, who was Rex’s assistant at London, and Franklin Stivers (the brother of Kentucky state Senate President Robert Stivers) in baseball.
The appreciation for the positive impact that a good coach can have becomes especially apparent when you or one of your children has a bad one. Some just seem bad, of course, from the naturally biased perspective of a parent, but others really are arbitrary, biased, impatient, inconsistent, lazy, profane, weak, or worse.
There is certainly no shortage of negative news about coaches at all levels in all sports. For all the extra-marital affairs, cheating, and other assorted human frailties, however, the careers of Hall of Famers like Dean Smith and unsung heroes like Rex Fredericks remind us of just how important and noble a calling coaching can be.
May you and yours be great coaches, or be blessed by them, and at least be able to endure the others with minimal damage. And may you say, at the end of the day, as I do to Rex, “Goodbye, Coach, and thank you.”