The J. R. VanHoose Recruitment Delimma

Sports & RecreationsSports

  • Author Larry Farmer
  • Published March 4, 2024
  • Word count 1,353

The J. R. VanHoose Recruitment Dilemma

During a three year period, Paintsville High School achieved an amazing feat in Kentucky basketball lore. They won the high school state tournament (1996), finished third (1997), and were a runner-up (1998). Several teams have been to the final four of the state tournament in consecutive years with a few winning championships two years in a row, but I am not aware of any reaching that stage three years in a row. What made the accomplishment even more remarkable is that they did it with an all White roster.

There were several Paintsville players who had outstanding games during the stretch but only two were significant factors throughout. I’m speaking of Todd Tackett and J. R. VanHoose. Of course, one also has to look at the coach (Bill Mark Runyon) who was also there during the entire “run.” VanHoose was a 6-9 center and a dominating force. In the 1996 semifinals against Lexington Catholic, he set a state tournament record by pulling down an incredible 27 rebounds. Earlier in Paintsville’s first game, he had a put back shot that defeated Owensboro in overtime. VanHoose was absolutely super in the 1998 championship game against Scott County when he scored 36 points and had 22 rebounds in a losing effort.

Rick Pitino, the coach of the University of Kentucky at the time, was under intense pressure to sign VanHoose. Many Kentucky fans viewed the Paintsville center as a “great White hope.” Since the days of integration, many Wildcat followers have not only longed for such a phenomenon but one who came from within the state of Kentucky. Coach Joe B. Hall would usually give in and sign the hot prospect. Most turned out to be gigantic disappointments which was probably no great surprise to Hall. He simply wanted to keep the faithful happy. They either played a year or two and then transferred or stayed all four years in a reserve capacity. The names range from G. J. Smith to Tim Stephens to Todd May to Troy McKinley.

Eddie Sutton, Hall’s successor, had more success when he signed Rex Chapman who was White but played with the athleticism of a Black from the ghetto. Chapman, however, had a lifestyle and belief system that did not exactly endear him to the true believers. He saw the handwriting on the wall and declared for the NBA draft after only two years. Finally, in the late 1980’s Sutton hit pay dirt when he recruited John Pelphrey, Deron Feldhaus, and Richie Farmer. All three had strong Kentucky roots and were a part of the 1992 Unforgettables who lost to Duke in the NCAA Regional when Christian Laettner hit a last second shot heard around the world.

Feldhaus’ father (Allen) had played for Rupp in the early 60’s and was a strong role player. Deron followed in his father’s footsteps. He was also a role player who made significant team contributions during his time wearing the blue and white. Farmer was from the mountains of eastern Kentucky, an area that is considered Kentucky’s base of support. He was a sensational high school player who led Clay County to a state championship in 1987 and a runner-up finish in 1988. Richie scored 51 points in the 1988 championship game which is still a record for that particular contest. As good as Farmer was in high school, Sutton did not enthusiastically recruit him. He was considered way too slow and lacking in basic athletic skills. In the end, Sutton gave in to the clamor, and Richie realized his dream of becoming a Wildcat. In his freshman year he underperformed, and many fans began to think he just didn’t have what it took to be a college player. During the next three years he got better and better and achieved a certain degree of stardom. In some games he was the difference between victory and defeat. Through it all he was the ultimate team player which earned him a special place in the hearts of Kentucky fans.

John Pelphrey, who played for Paintsville ten years before VanHoose, was a true star. He participated in two state tournaments and led the Tigers to a final four finish in 1987. He was also selected as Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball in 1987. After red shirting his first year in college and playing limited minutes as a freshman, he emerged as a solid scorer and all around performer in his final three seasons. Pelphrey worked hard to become the type of player Coach Pitino wanted and admired. Because his athletic skills were a shade less than those the coach desired, he spent countless hours training and conditioning. In the end he provided Pitino with more than enough.

Although Pelphrey was a pleasant surprise for Pitino, the coach had no interest in recruiting a similar type. VanHoose, according to Pitino, did not have what was needed to keep Kentucky at the top in the national rankings. He simply didn’t feel the Paintsville center had the stamina, speed, or defensive skills it would take to succeed in the fast paced environment at which Kentucky played. He even felt VanHoose was shorter than listed, claiming the big man was 6-7 rather than 6-9. Having won a national championship in 1996, Pitino had the credibility with Wildcat fans to resist signing VanHoose.

It should be noted two White Kentuckians did sign to play for Pitino during his time at Kentucky. One was Cameron Mills, son of former Wildcat Terry Mills. The other was Travis Ford who originally signed with Missouri and later transferred to Kentucky. Ford’s father was heavily involved in the basketball scene throughout the Commonwealth. It would be safe to assume that both Mills and Ford had an inside track.

When Tubby Smith replaced Pitino as head coach in 1997, he made a half hearted effort to sign VanHoose. By that time, however, VanHoose had felt the slight and decided to cast his lot with Marshall University. As a consolation prize for the fans, Smith signed Todd Tackett. Tackett played two forgettable years at Kentucky and then decided to quit basketball for good. Meanwhile, VanHoose excelled at Marshall. As his playing career ended, he was in the school’s top five in career points and number two in rebounds. He finally got to play a college game in Rupp Arena when the Thundering Herd faced the Wildcats in November of 2001. He scored 16 points and had 12 rebounds, but Marshall came out on the wrong end of a 94-75 contest.

This essay will now close with an assessment of Paintsville’s 1996-98 state tournament appearances. After winning it all in 1996, the Tigers appeared on their way to a repeat in 1997. With a minute to go in a final four game against Fort Thomas Highlands, the Tigers held a six point lead. They still led by three with 11 seconds and had the ball at mid-court. After being unable to in-bounds the ball, Coach Runyon called a timeout. It didn’t work as the ball was thrown away, and a foul was called on Tackett. The Highlands player hit the first but missed the second on purpose. With VanHoose out of the game after picking up his fifth foul, Derek Smith (a future Kentucky football player) scored on a rebound shot to force overtime. The Bluebirds eventually won by three points. Smith led Highlands in scoring, and Jared Lorenzon, a future star quarterback with the Wildcats, had eight points. Placing the blame on the head coach in such a contest is an easy thing to do and in this case seems justified.

In 1998 Paintsville breezed into the championship game where they faced Scott County and its legendary coach Billy Hicks. Everything was going the Tigers’ way when Tackett went out with an injury in the middle of the first half. After that, it was all downhill. VanHoose had a fantastic game, but without Tackett the Tigers had no answer. Paintsville had a marvelous three years, but the last two coupled with Kentucky’s rejection of VanHoose had to leave a bitter taste. Neither Paintsville nor Bill Mark Runyon has made another appearance in the state tournament.

I received a bachelors degree in 1967 and a masters degree in 1971 from Western Kentucky University. I taught school for 44 years. One year was spent at Fordsville High School, 17 at Ohio County High School, and 26 at Trinity High School in Whitesville. The subjects I taught were government, history, and English. At Trinity I also served as coach, athletic director, and dean of students. I fancy myself a fairly good writer, and my main interests are sports and politics

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