By Alex Forkner
Former UK basketball star Sean Woods feels good to be back in the Bluegrass State.
“This is where it all started, you know, my career; my mom was born and raised in Lexington, the whole side of her family is in Lexington, my wife is from Lexington,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be able to come back and coach in the state of Kentucky.”
Woods, who played at UK from 1990-1992, took the head coaching job at Morehead State University in May after coaching the last four seasons at Mississippi Valley State University. In a less-than-ideal situation, Woods’ teams at MVSU rarely played a home game before the conference schedule began. Traveling all over America let the program receive checks from bigger schools for playing in their arenas, Woods’ strategy for building a program.
For Woods, it turned out to be a valuable learning experience.
Sean Woods. (Morehead photo by Tim Holbrook)
“I learned to do without, to make it with no excuses,” he said. “There won’t be a job that I ever get that’s going to be worse than that one. It gave me great confidence to realize that if I can do it there, I pretty much feel like I can do it anywhere with many more resources.”
Woods did an admirable job considering the mountain he had to climb, taking the Delta Devils to the NCAA Tournament last season after a 1-11 start. Following a 17-1 Southwestern Athletic Conference slate, Woods coached his team against Western Kentucky University in a First Four match up in Dayton. Woods said he had the itch to be on the court after watching his team lose a lead and fall 59-58 to the Hilltoppers.
“If you watch my game against Western, I wished I was the point guard in there making sure we didn’t turn the ball over late in the game,” he said. “That’s the only frustrating part about it, you can lead guys to the water but you can’t make them drink.”
After taking the job at Morehead State, Woods said he hoped to turn the program into the “Gonzaga of the South,” the type of mid-major school that can compete with bigger teams and make a run in the Big Dance. Though his schedule won’t face as many top schools as the murderers’ rows at his previous coaching gig, Woods is anxious to play the in-state big boys.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “It’s nothing new because I’ve played Kentucky before when I was at Mississippi Valley, and I’ve played pretty much every high to mid-major school in the United States for the last four years, with the exception of Louisville. It’s not going to be anything new. I’ll have better players, so I’ll be more competitive.”
Woods brought his Delta Devils squad to Rupp in 2010, when the final score read 85-60. Being on the other end of that type of loss can be hard to swallow, Woods said.
“It was kind of frustrating because when I was at Kentucky as a player, I used to beat up on those types of schools, and now I was the one getting beat up on,” he said. “It was kind of bittersweet. It was an opportunity to get back and coach in front of fans that cheered me on for four years, but on the other hand, I don’t like to lose. I don’t care who it is, and we still lost the game.”
A member of the “Unforgettables,” who famously lost to Duke in the 1992 NCAA Tournament regional final, Woods’ No. 11 jersey hangs in the hallowed rafters of Rupp Arena, where he’ll return with his new team to play the Cats on Nov. 21, but don’t expect him to make any wistful glances toward the ceiling during the game.
“It’s gratifying, but when you’re in the heat of the battle that’s the last thing you want to think about,” Woods said. “You’re trying to prepare your team to have the opportunity to win a basketball game. I lived in Lexington for 10 years before I moved away, and I would go to every home game, so it’s nothing new to me. I don’t look at it like a lot of other people would, but it’s still a prideful deal, and I feel very fortunate to have my jersey hanging up in such a prestigious and historic basketball program.”
The move to Morehead is a step-up in Woods’ career, and more steps up are sure to follow if he continues to perform as he did at Mississippi Valley, but Woods’ eyes are not looking toward the future.
“I think about the task at hand,” he said. “I think when you start (thinking about the future), you lose focus on what you’re doing right now. I truly believe that if I work my butt off and continue to do the things I’ve been doing, everything else will take care of itself.”
So he’s never thought about coaching in Rupp on the home sideline?
“I’ve never thought of that. What I’m thinking about is coaching on the sidelines at Morehead State and making it the best place we can possibly make it.”