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Mitch Bailey: a coach, teacher, friend

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By Steve Doyle

Mitchell Bailey, a coach of champions and an inspirational teacher of thousands, died Thursday morning of complications following stomach surgery. He was 82. Bailey was an assistant coach on Shelby County High Schools’ state championship basketball team in 1966 and its state baseball championship team in 1979, and he took the 1966 baseball team to the state finals, too. But it was the legions of students who sat in his U.S. history class at SCHS over whom Bailey perhaps had the most influence in his career. He was renown for how he made history colorful and taught it to exacting standards. His passing left stunned and saddened so many Shelby Countians who had crossed paths with him either as a coach, a teacher or a neighbor on Bayne Avenue, where he and his wife, Jane, have lived for many years. “We have gotten so many calls the last week,” said his son, John Bailey, who lives near Nashville. “Dad knew so many people.” Bailey went in for surgery for a stomach aneurism last Wednesday, John Bailey, said. “We knew it was serious surgery,” he said. “But we expected him home on Thursday.” But the surgery went bad, and there was extensive internal bleeding. Bailey was rushed back into surgery that night. He awakened from that and chatted with family and friends, but his condition was not good. “We talked to him. He told us he didn’t want us to worry,” John Bailey said. “Then he went to sleep about halfway through the day – which we thought was a good thing – but he never woke up. “The doctors didn’t call it a coma. They just said his body shut down after two surgeries. “We still thought he could bounce back from it. It wasn’t until this morning [Thursday] that we realized it was up.” Bailey, who also leaves behind a daughter, Lisa, a resident of the Nashville area, and six grandchildren, was slight of build and bald for almost his entire adult life, and he was a competitor of great strength, commitment and wit. He did two tours in the military, joining the Army right out of high school and playing the E-flat horn in the Army band. He used the GI Bill to fund his education at Transylvania, where he was a pitcher on the baseball team, and when the money ran out, he joined the Air Force for a tour, earning the money to finish his bachelor’s degree. He also earned a master’s from the University of Kentucky. Bailey the coach Bailey began his career at Campbellsburg High School in Henry County, where he coached both basketball and baseball. He moved to Henry Central (now Henry County) and then to Eminence, where he coached both those sports and was an assistant in football, too. One of his baseball teams made the State Tournament, John Bailey. He moved to Shelby County in 1965, just in time to coach Mike Casey, Bill Busey, Jobie Miller and Ron Ritter in their run to basketball and baseball glory. Bailey was the junior varsity coach and chief assistant to Bill Harrell on the basketball title team and then spent two years with Adolph “Herky” Rupp Jr., when SCHS, led by Mr. Basketball Terry Davis and All-State forward Jim Simons, was one of the state’s top teams as well. “One of my fondest memories of Coach Bailey was watching him use that old-fashioned, two-hand set shot and beat all comers in a game of horse before practice,” said Jim Simons, an all-state forward who graduated in 1969. “He would just laugh and tease us.” Those horse games came up in a story last spring about how Casey, then dying of heart disease, recalled a bet he had made with Bailey about a game of horse. Bailey won, and Casey owed milkshakes. Casey had gift certificates for 100 of them delivered to Bailey’s house, which had Bailey laughing. When Rupp left coaching, Bailey became the head coach in 1969-70, and despite having no starter taller than 6 foot 2, he led the Rockets to a berth in the State Tournament. Lowell Ashby was that tallest starter and team star, and he recalls how Bailey led “Mitch’s Midgets” to such a successful season. “I have at least three major memories of my senior year with him as our head coach,” Ashby said. “One, he required that our team set the maximum points the other team could score in the game.  If the other team scored more than that, we, the team had to run that many laps. If we held them under that limit, Coach Bailey had to run. He had to run a lot of laps that year. “Second was a quote he had painted on the wall in the locker room that said, “You can achieve great things if you don’t care who gets the credit.”  Third, he was a little bit of a superstitious person, and I still have a Sentinel-News picture clipping of me pushing him into the shower at Henry County after we had won the regional that year showing that his tie-tack was pulled out of his shirt and tie. “He told me later that he lost that tie-tack in the shower and that’s why we lost our first game of the state tournament that year.” Bailey gave up coaching baseball when he became the head basketball coach and then gave up that job in 1974.   After coaching golf for several years – he was the coach in 1976 when Howard Logan Jr. won the state high school title – Bailey returned to baseball in the late 1970s, spending four years as pitching coach for Hubert Pollett’s powerhouse teams. “He was very knowledgeable about baseball, a whole lot more knowledge about the game than I had, so he kept me on my toes,” Pollett said. “He was a very unique and special individual not to just me but to lot of people in Shelby County.” Bailey was known for pushing his opponents and the umpires, once ordering his team to leave the field in a game it was winning at Henry County because he didn’t like the way the umpires were calling it. “Sack ‘em up. We’re going home,” he said that day. “This loss is on me, boys.” Bailey the teacher and mentor Bailey was known for having an everlasting influence on those whose paths he crossed, no matter what. He was full of commitment and examples. “Outside of my parents, Coach Bailey undoubtedly had the most influence on my teenage years,” Ashby said. “He loved his ‘little guys’ and kept up with us closely. He even pulled aside Linda, my then girl friend and now wife of 37 years, to be sure we weren’t getting too serious in our relationship. “I know he loved us greatly and only wanted the best for our future. He gained even more of my respect after that.  “I’m sure Coach Bailey had more than a major influence on me getting my scholarship to play at Morehead State University (with Coach Harrell), but he never told me he had anything to do with it. He never liked to talk much about himself.” “But I know he must have had a lot to do with me getting my college paid for and for me getting to play college basketball.  What a great blessing that was!  That had a huge influence on the rest of my life.” John Bailey tells the story about when he was about 12, he and his dad entered a father-son free-throw shooting contest that could earn them a spot competing at halftime of a Kentucky Colonels game. “Dad never missed, so I thought we could do well,” he said. “We competed and qualified for the finals during the Colonels game, but dad said, sorry, we can’t do it. He had to go scout Eminence for the regional final – they ahd a great player named Eric Batchelor that year – and I said all we had to do was stop Batchelor. Dad said, no, he had to scout.” In history classes, he spiced up the dates and names with stories that inspired his students but also challenged them. But his wit and knowledge drew them in and left an impression. “I hated history until his teaching,” said Dixie Nutt Taylor, one of his students in 1970. “He made it come alive. I think that’s why now I love going to historical places” Bailey the friend Bailey made new friends easily and maintained old one steadfastly, but few go back farther than his relationship with Arnold Thurman, who was the athletic director and track coach at SCHS for two decades. “I got to know him when he coached at Campbellsburg and I was at Bagdad,” Thurman said. “We went to graduate school at UK together, and we were friends even though we tried to beat each other. “He came to Shelby County in 1965, and we got together with our wives all the way back to that year, once a month, four couples to play Rook. Once a month every month. We’d play with other couples our wives [Jeannette and Jane], and sometimes they would win and sometimes we would. “We met together in Florida [for vacation] not every year but many years, and we also met together Maggie Valley [N.C.] for many years. We’d visit through the mountains, but at night we would come back to the cabin and play Rook. “Two years ago was the last time that we met,” he said. Said his son, John: “High school friends, military friends, he stayed in touch, he really did. One friendship he just recently renewed was with his college baseball coach at Transylvania [Harry Stephenson]. His college coach is still alive in his early 90s and they had gotten back together a few times in past five or six years. Dad got big kick out of getting back together with him.” The Polletts and the Baileys became personal friends, too. “He was close to my girls and my family. We were friends right up until the end,”  Hubie Pollett said. The last time Pollett saw Bailey was Wednesday. He had made several trips to the hospital, helping family members. “I kept up with him,” he said. “The community lost a special individual. He was always friendly and always had a smile on his face, always cutting up. He Loved all the people that he coached and taught. 

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“He had a special place in his heart for them, and I hope they are old enough now to realize that.”