Wiedmer: Kilby proof that jucos can work out

Wiedmer: Kilby proof that jucos can work out

October 10th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball coach John Shulman made a stunning statement during his Tuesday afternoon news conference.

"For the first time in 35 years," said the ninth-year head coach, "we won't have a single junior college player on our roster."

He said this with neither regret nor relief. It is merely a change in the university's philosophy regarding its athletic department.

But 35 miles up Interstate 75 at Cleveland State Community College, 64-year-old Lonnie James Kilby Jr. is exceedingly grateful for the role junior colleges have played in his life and career.

"Without them, I'd probably be working at the Bassett Furniture factory running a ripsaw with two or three fingers missing," said the Cleveland State assistant basketball coach better known as "L.J."

"Junior college basketball opened so many doors for me as both a player and a coach."

Saturday morning, Kilby will be inducted into the Lincoln Memorial University Hall of Fame, at least partly because the success he'd had at Ferrum Junior College led LMU to hire him as an assistant in 1975. He became the head coach at the Harrogate, Tenn., school three years later, leading the Railsplitters for five seasons and guiding them to the NAIA national tournament before leaving to become an assistant at Georgia Southern.

"I never thought when I got started in this profession that I'd wind up in anybody's hall of fame," Kilby said. "Hall of shame, maybe. But other than the birth of my children and turning my life around a few years ago, this is the greatest thing that's ever happened to me."

A successful fight to break a few bad health habits -- "I should have died three years ago," he said with a chuckle -- has left Kilby feeling better than he has in years. There's also a subtle change in how he works with today's athletes as he assists Cleveland State head coach Lee Cigliano.

"I walk off that court every day now asking myself, 'What have I done to help this kid today? And not just as a player, but as a person,'" Kilby explained. "Our real job is to do everything we can to see them get a degree."

Said Cigliano on Tuesday: "L.J. brings a lot of experience. He's been at every level of college basketball and brings a lot of insight and knowledge about how things work. But his greatest strength, I think, is his ability to relate to people, especially the kids in our program. L.J.'s a great communicator."

Kilby fell in love with basketball at Sanville (Va.) Elementary School while playing for the late Curtis Wall. A juco scholarship to Ferrum under Carl Tacy -- who later coached Wake Forest to the NCAA tournament -- led to a scholarship to Virginia Commonwealth and coach Benny Dees. Then came a brief coaching stay at Ferrum before LMU. By the early 1980s he was an assistant at Georgia Southern before coaching a total of 10 seasons at UTC -- five under Mack McCarthy, five under Henry Dickerson.

Now that Kilby's back in junior college, he understands why UTC has backed away from jucos but also hopes they'll reconsider.

"You've got a different kid than before because of media exposure," he said. "It's not that they're bad kids. But because they've been exposed to so much basketball and so much focus on the pros, their personal expectations aren't what they should be. They all think they can play in the NBA, and that's unrealistic. They need to work hard at this level, maybe get a four-year offer and earn a degree."

It's that seeming lack of focus on education that mostly led UTC to move away from juco recruits. It's the need to shift that focus that made Kilby want to come back.

"I understand it," he said. "But it's hard to sign enough good high school kids to win at the level UTC's been accustomed to winning at over the years. Look at the past -- Gerald Wilkins, Tim Brooks, Johnny Taylor -- many of the best players have been junior college transfers."

Maybe Kilby's hard work at Cleveland State can help change UTC's mind about jucos. Maybe not. But he's going to retire trying.

"This is it for me, my last stop," he said. "And I'm so grateful for this opportunity. Whatever happens, I'm going to give it my very best shot."

Which is what you'd expect from a Hall of Famer, regardless of which hall of fame he's in.