Region 12 Hall of Fame High School basketball coach Don Irvine has been coaching in Kentucky for 41 years. His journeyman-like career has taken him across the state, coaching at Somerset and Madison Central for two seasons each before becoming the youngest head coach in the state, leading Augusta Independent at age 24. Irvine went on to lead teams from Burgin Independent, McLean County, Western Hills, Garrard County and Casey County, as well as four seasons as an assistant at Danville High School. Most recently, Irvine’s Casey County team went 15-8 during the 2020-21 season.
“It definitely was a blast to get that many chances. My resume looks like a bingo card sometimes,” said Irvine.
Irvine spent more time with the Bulldogs than any other school in his long career, coaching in Burgin for 18 years. After retiring from Burgin in 2019, Irvine nearly immediately found himself courtside as an assistant with the Danville boys’ basketball team. When Covid-19 halted sports in 2020, Irvine said he felt “unfulfilled.” After some time debating his future decision he finally received his sign, a text message letting him know Casey County had no boys basketball coach.
“I prayed about it and talked to my wife and kids, and I said ‘it must be a sign’ so I took the job and didn’t regret it at all until after I got sick,” said Irvine.
Irvine says he got sick during the season and quarantined, and after returning began to notice the difficulty of tasks that used to be simple.
“Little fine motor skills and things, my gate, my walk and posture were really bad, and just little things like that. I just didn’t feel good, and I felt like I was getting weak with everything,” said Irvine. Tremors began and Irvine struggled with stuttering, making his job as a communicator all the more difficult.
Following an MRI Irvine discovered he had had a stroke.
“That puts a real damper on your day,” said Irvine.
Irvine began seeing physical and occupational therapists to regain some of his lost strength but one and a half hours of driving back and forth from a two and a half hour practice in Casey County left him too little energy to do much else.
“Well, right now I’m allowed to do anything that I feel like I’m able to, but that’s the problem, feeling good enough to do stuff because some days you feel wonderful and you’re like ‘well I could coach and do anything I want to do,’ and then a half hour later you might feel like you just want to go to bed and curl up in a ball.”
While high school basketball has been his life since the age of 20, Irvine has decided to step down from his role as coach of the Rebels. His sons played a big part in his stepping down as their reaction to his physical shape had an impression on Irvine. He says some usual aspects of coaching were beginning to cause stress, and he had lost some weight since he began at Casey County.
“I thought I just needed to get away from some of the stressful things, because I just couldn’t give 110 percent like I ask the players to do. And if I can’t do it well, that’s cheating them out of what they need,” Irvine said.
Irvine joked that he wasn’t allowed to call it retirement again due to his two previous stints away from the game. He says the possibility of returning to the game as an assistant coach is not out of the question and that it is certainly a more likely scenario than being a head coach.
“Probably common sense says that I need to be somebody’s assistant coach because then I don’t have to be there all of the time,” he said. “After spending 43 years doing it, I actually ought to try to find something else. I’m not good at anything else, but I need to find something else to do part time, but that would keep me around the kids and the game and the people that I really care about. I could see that as a bigger possibility than going back into head coaching, that’s for sure.”