Wilson left a legacy of success in over a half century of coaching


KIm Henson

John D. WIlson (left) was honored as a member of the 13th Region Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

John D. Wilson is pictured with legendary University of Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp when he took a Loyall team to an AAU tournament at Memorial Coliseum in 1974. (Mike Ball)

(This story originally ran in 2013. Kentucky High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame coach John D. Wilson died on Monday. Wilson compiled a 519-438 record in 39 years as a high school basketball coach at Pine Mountain, Cawood, Webster County and Red Bird)

John D. Wilson has spent over a half century proving former Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher wrong.
Durocher is credited with saying in the 1940s that “nice guys finish last.” But since the 1950s, Wilson has been winning, and it would be difficult to find anyone who wouldn’t agree that Wilson has always done it with class and a country charm, both on the middle school and high school level.
Wilson has honored Friday as a member of the 2013 Dawahares/KHSAA Hall of Fame class.
“It was completely unexpected,” Wilson said. “I talked (KHSAA Commissioner) Julian (Tackett) on Friday. It’s a big honor. I was overcome with emotion when Julian told me. I never expected it.”
The class will be recognized at the annual Dawahares/KHSAA Hall of Fame golf outing on June 19 at the Marriott Griffin Gate Resort in Lexington. The class will be inducted in ceremonies on April 13 at the Lexington Convention Center.
“I always enjoyed trying to help children, and that’s been what it’s all about,” Wilson said. “It’s not wins and losses. It’s what you do to help people and help them make something out of themselves. It’s always good to run into former players and see them doing well.”
“It tickled me to death. We’ve been working on that for some time,” said Harlan County Schools Superintendent Tim Saylor. “If anybody deserves it, John D. Wilson is one of those people. He’s a great person and a great basketball coach for many years.”
A graduate of Loyall High School, Wilson went on to play basketball and baseball at Cumberland College before beginning his coaching career in 1958 at Green Hills and then at Pine Mountain Settlement School in 1960. He returned to Green Hills for five more years. He built a junior high powerhouse in eight years at Loyall Elementary School, winning numerous county championships and leading his 1974 team to an AAU state title.
Wilson followed his standout team from Loyall to Cawood High School in the fall of 1974 and turned a program that had never finished with a winning record or made it to the regional tournament into a winner almost overnight.
Cawood won its first 52nd District title in 1976 and the Trojans fell to Clay County in the 13th Region Tournament finals with a backcourt that featured current Harlan coach David Parks and Harlan County Schools assistant superintendent Mike Howard.
Cawood added district championships in 1977 and 1978 with a team led by several of his former Loyall stars, including Greg Coldiron, Will Clem, Husky Turner, Fred Sturgill and Bill Wilson, plus former Hall standout Lynn Rhymer.
The 1978 team finished 24-2 but was defeated by Pineville in the opening round of the regional tournament, which is still considered the biggest upset in tourney history.
“I thought I’d be at Cawood the rest of my life,” Wilson said. “It didn’t work out. The Lord works in mysterious ways and everything turns out for the best generally.”
Wilson moved on to Webster County High School after the 1979 season and spent nine years there before moving back to eastern Kentucky and beginning an amazing transformation of the Red Bird program.
Tucked away in a corner of Clay County, near the Leslie County border, Red Bird is one of the smallest basketball playing schools in Kentucky, but Wilson soon turned the Cardinals into a 13th Region contender. Red Bird topped the 20-win mark numerous times under Wilson’s leadership and made it to the 13th Region finals in 1998 before falling to Clay County.
Wilson will begin his 25th season at Red Bird in August and his 55th year in coaching, including 39 on the high school level.