Claudia Hicks was the only woman head coach in the 1981 girls Sweet Sixteen. Media took notice and nearly wore out the Rowan County coach inquiring about it.
"You wouldn’t believe all the attention I’ve been getting and the big deal they’re making of it," Hicks told the Ashland Daily Independent that week.
In a coaching context, Charlie Baker didn’t understand all the fuss, either. More important to him was Hicks’ attention to detail and her team’s consistent effort.
"I’m a guy who, I don’t care what gender you are, if you’re doing it right, I’m gonna steal some stuff from you," East Carter’s then-boys bench boss said Tuesday, "and I asked her some things, how and why’d she do that. I gained some respect for her. I believed in her. She really respected that."
Hicks, a pioneer of girls basketball coaching in the 16th Region who led the Lady Vikings to nine region tournament finals in a span of 11 years before serving as Rowan County’s athletic director and a volleyball referee and KHSAA Board of Control member, died Friday. She was 71.
Hicks coached Rowan County’s girls basketball program from its inception in 1974 until 1990, when she stepped down to focus on the school’s athletic director position.
When the KHSAA began sponsoring the modern era of girls basketball, Baker joked that "back then nobody wanted to coach girls basketball. You had to threaten somebody with their job if they didn’t take girls basketball."
“She went ahead and challenged that (mindset)," Baker said.
"It was just a natural fit for me to step up," Hicks told The Morehead News in 2015. "Basically, I walked into the principal’s office and said that I’d like to have the job."
Hicks had to learn through "trial and error," she said, but did so well enough to lead Rowan County to four region tournament titles in a five-year span, from 1981-85. The Lady Vikings reached the state’s final four in 1981.
"She was a very good coach," said Frank Sloan, whose Ashland Kittens lost to Rowan County in the 1981 region final. "Her kids played hard and it was a great rivalry. Every game was exciting, was well-played by both teams, and she was a wonderful coach. ... I had a great deal of respect for her because of the way her girls played."
Hicks was the Eastern Kentucky Conference Coach of the Year nine times and coached in the first Kentucky-Ohio All-Star Game. She was inducted into the Kentucky Association of Basketball Coaches Court of Honor in 2005 — the same year as Baker, who in later years joined her in refereeing volleyball in the area.
Baker fondly remembered Hicks encouraging a petrified first-time referee before a Spike-o-Rama scrimmage.
"He’s nervous, and she sees that, senses that," Baker said, "and says, ‘Hey, come on now. If you make a bad call, nobody’s gonna die. Nobody’s gonna lose their life. You’re gonna miss a call, but nobody’s gonna shoot ya.’"
Hicks became the namesake of Rowan County’s home court in 2015. By that time, she had also served as the athletic director for 12 years and two terms on the KHSAA Board of Control, during which time she continued to advocate for girls sports.
Hicks also taught science at Rowan County Senior High School for 32 years, which is how she met current Lady Vikings coach Matt Stokes.
"Nothing bothered her," Stokes said. "She would just go with the flow. We were a pretty rambunctious group; we would do stuff and she’d just kinda look at us (like), yeah, that doesn’t bother me. She just had an even keel about her and she cared about everybody."
When Stokes became the Lady Vikings’ coach before last season, he inherited the program Hicks began.
"It’s a huge thing for me, especially growing up here, being from Morehead and Rowan County and seeing all those banners that are up in the gymnasium," Stokes said. "Most of those are from her. She really laid the groundwork for girls and boys both to try to be successful and follow in her footsteps, and that’s one of the reasons the court is named after her at Rowan County as well."
The Lady Vikings are one of several strong girls basketball programs in the 16th Region who have acquitted themselves well on the state level in recent years.
"She was very proud of that," Baker said. "She could make a connection. She was on the floor to start it all. She was really proud of how the girls basketball has come, and the coaching.
"I would think she would like to have more lady coaches in it, but she respected the men coaches. ... She really felt good about how girls basketball has advanced where it is today."