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Kentucky to the bone: The Bluegrass background behind Morehead State’s success

Preston Spradlin’s lifetime of Kentucky roots has led him to this moment.

Morehead State State v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

To say that basketball is everything in Kentucky simultaneously cheapens and overstates its import. Caring about basketball in Kentucky isn’t like living in an idyllic Hoosiers-adjacent neck of the woods where everyone around only cares about the basketball team and whether things work themselves out in the most saccharine manner.

No, basketball in Kentucky is a way to get by. It’s a diversion in a region that has been subjected to decades of hardship and toil. It exists outside the realm of your immediate life, giving you something to look forward to even when the rest of life is hard. It represents everything about what sports are meant to do for us.

Perhaps no other coach understands its impact quite like Preston Spradlin.

Morehead State’s head coach, now in his fourth full season with the team, is fresh off his first OVC Tournament championship. For the first time since 2011, the Eagles will get their chance in the NCAA Tournament. It’s the sort of experience that any kid growing up in the Bluegrass State who has ever glanced at a hoop dreams of — and Spradlin was one of those kids.

When most coaches say they have a connection to whatever place the school that cuts their checks is located, it reeks of coach speak. But when Spradlin proudly tells you that he’s “the most Kentucky guy you’re ever going to meet,” you believe him. Part of that is because a cursory look through his biography will confirm it. But the authenticity of that statement is evident when he talks about what he remembers and what he has experienced.

Spradlin himself is from Pikeville, a city in Kentucky’s easternmost county where an annual “Hillbilly Days” festival is held celebrating the rich aspects of Appalachian culture that outsiders typically look upon with derision. It’s in this mountain town where Spradlin grew up as a Kentucky fan.

Spradlin recognizes how his early experience with basketball fandom mirrored that of countless Kentuckians. His family was “like most eastern Kentucky families,” because, “when the Cats played, that’s what you did. Two nights a week you tuned in and you watched.” And when the holidays came around? Well, you could bet that you would be getting Kentucky gear for Christmas.

If that wasn’t enough of an affirmation of support, “people [in eastern Kentucky] take family photos in Kentucky t-shirts. That’s what they do.”

Alice Lloyd College, located in Pippa Passes — one county over from Pikeville — was founded in 1923 with the noble purpose of “making an . . . education available to qualified mountain students regardless of their financial situation.” Students at Alice Lloyd are required to work 160 hours per semester, doing jobs that run the gamut from janitorial work to library assistance to performing Shakespeare for the community.

Keeping in line with his true Kentucky upbringing, Spradlin spent his college years in the state. Ultimately, he ended up at Alice Lloyd, playing basketball for the Eagles, a member of the NAIA. While he readily acknowledges that he “wasn’t a great player by any means,” what made the playing experience special to Spradlin was his relationship with his teammates. While some might believe that old teammates get together to reminisce on their old triumphs, Spradlin has seen firsthand that what they really spend time talking about is “the fellowship, the camaraderie...[and] the time they spent together.”

A sentiment such as that falls right in line with the community-focused purpose of Alice Lloyd College.

Spradlin’s itch to coach came to life during his college days, and it has clung to him ever since.

The first blossoming of that love for coaching came to life after Spradlin’s freshman year at Alice Lloyd. Someone on the staff of then-Chattanooga coach John Shulman had asked if anyone would be interested in officiating their team camp. Spradlin and another player hopped in a car and made the nearly five-hour drive to southeastern Tennessee. They refereed games quite literally from morning till far past dusk.

Plenty of good came from the trip — Spradlin and his teammate were invited back the following weekend to work the camp for kids that the staff was running. After that, there was no doubt in Spradlin’s mind that coaching was his calling.

From there, Spradlin took advantage of every opportunity that presented itself. He spent his summers working camps, even if it meant sleeping in his truck for a night or two. All of that was just to get the chance to meet some coaches, gain experience, and pursue his dream of coaching. He has never seen himself wanting to do anything else.

Ultimately, Spradlin got a chance that would sprout envy in anyone who spent as much time in the Bluegrass as he did: working for the Kentucky Wildcats. He spent five seasons on staff with John Calipari, serving as both a graduate assistant and assistant director of operations for the Hall of Fame coach. In that role, he was given plenty of important tasks, but what really stood out was the chance to meet so many people, including UK legends — guys like Kenny “Sky” Walker and Sam Bowie — whose presence he had only ever encountered via stories or a television screen.

When reflecting on the experience, Spradlin takes care to emphasize that it produced a sense of wonder in him every day. After charting a path that took him from Pikeville to Pippa Passes to Lexington — a bustling metropolis by Kentucky standards — he internalized the feeling that “every day was such a blessing.”

Only nine games had been completed in the 2016 season when Sean Woods, the former UK “Unforgettable” and then-head coach of the Morehead State Eagles, resigned following an “investigation into alleged physical abuse of his players.” Spradlin, then an assistant, was promoted to head coach and given the interim tag. In due time, he’d lose that title, but not in the method interim coaches are typically dispatched.

The team was embroiled in turmoil due to occurrences off the court, and their on-court performance had also taken a dive — the Eagles were just 2-7 when Spradlin took over. Nevertheless, he guided the team to a 10-6 conference record, earning a promotion to the full-time job. Finally, this son of Appalachia who was raised on basketball and pursued every opportunity he got with a singular focus in mind was in charge of the preeminent team in the mountains.

However, it would be some time before Spradlin saw success coming close to what he managed to accomplish in 2016. Three consecutive years of sub-.500 records followed, but the administration sought stability — an all-too-often unused trait among modern athletic directors — choosing to extend their coach in 2019 following a 13-20 season.

It was clear from the beginning of OVC play that 2021 was shaping up to be a year that had been out of reach for the Eagles for a decade. Picked to finish eighth in the conference’s preseason poll, MSU rode a 17-3 record into second place in the OVC. But for teams in one-bid leagues (except for, uh, 2019), all of that is superfluous window dressing, forgotten in time. Securing an NCAA Tournament bid? That’s forever.

Morehead State toppled tournament favorite Belmont by 15 in a title game that wasn’t even that close. The Eagles looked like a team with major drive, and, as is often the case in this game, were rewarded for their effort. On their trip back to Morehead, they were greeted like kings.

The welcome party is emblematic of the kind of support you’re going to get as a winning team in Kentucky, whether you’re in Louisville or a small city like Morehead. The love affair with the game runs deep, largely because of its aforementioned ability to allow fans to escape from life for two hours twice a week. So even though the population of Morehead only totals around 7,000 people, it doubles when school is in session; Spradlin loves how, when the 10,000 or so students are in town, “there’s a lot of energy and a lot of excitement” that is primarily “geared towards men’s basketball.” It is a Kentucky town, after all.

That same excitement comes through when Spradlin talks about the school. For someone to truly appreciate what this university means to this region, it takes lived experiences and a knowledge of the area that goes beyond Twitter threads and newspaper think pieces. The residents of Morehead “have a lot of pride in their university,” and the guys who Spradlin brings on board must feel the same level of passion to succeed. After all, as he regularly tells recruits:

“We don’t have a mall. We don’t have an NBA team. We don’t have nightclubs. We don’t have any of that stuff. We’ve got 94 feet and two hoops.”

That and the unconditional admiration of about 17,000 people right in their backyard.