AIT Fairview falls to Simon Kenton

Fairview coach Rex Cooksey talks Saturday with Matt Jones during the Eagle's 55-50 loss to Simon Kenton in the first round of the Ashland Invitational Tournament.

Rex Cooksey has tried to step back before.

After 44 years in coaching, he thinks it may stick this time, although he acknowledged he is always "a phone call away."

Cooksey is stepping down as Fairview's girls basketball coach and athletic director, he said Monday.

"I feel like I've always tried to help out whenever I could help out," Cooksey said. "I know I've quit before, but I feel like this time, I'm ready to step aside, get a box of popcorn and go to Florida a little bit."

Cooksey began his coaching career fresh out of high school as an elementary basketball bench boss at Fairview in 1973 at the behest of then-Eagles coach George Cooke.

"When you start out with players like Jack Preston and Jeff Hall, you think the game's gonna be easy," Cooksey said of that experience.

After two years in that role and his time in college, Cooksey returned to Westwood, where he was hired "as a 22-year-old kid, wet behind the ears," he said.

He stayed in the coaching profession for 42 more years, most of them in teaching and/or administration. Except for four years at Ashland, two at Greenup County and two at Ironton St. Joseph -- after he'd hung it up at Fairview in 2016 -- Cooksey was omnipresent at his alma mater, guiding at various times the boys and girls basketball, football, baseball, golf and track and field teams. He also coached tennis at Ashland.

Cooksey is believed to be the only person to be named The Daily Independent's All-Area Coach of the Year in basketball, football and track.

"I told a friend I was the only one stupid enough to do it," cracked Cooksey, who at two different times coached both the gridiron and boys roundball Eagles simultaneously.

Cooksey also leaves a legacy of two sons who went on to become head coaches at Fairview -- Derek, who inherited the basketball Eagles from his father and led them for 10 years, and Brett, who coached both the hoops and football teams for a year apiece. Both are now assistant boys basketball coaches and teachers at Russell. Cooksey's son-in-law, Ryan Knipp, coaches Fairview's baseball team.

Cooksey as athletic director was one of the first hires Fairview superintendent Jackie Risden-Smith made when she took over the district in 2018, she said.

"I can’t say enough how much I appreciate him coming out of retirement to help us out as our district athletic director," Risden-Smith said. "His passion for Fairview’s success is contagious. He has given so much to our students and families over 36 years, as he’s served as a teacher, coach and administrator. He’s an outstanding person and I’m so thankful for the two years I’ve been able to work with him. I understand his desire to go back to retirement, but he will be greatly missed by myself and many."

Cooksey saw it as time to cede the stage to  someone else, he said.

"I knew when I got back in here I could stay as long as I want, but that was a short-term solution," he said. "(Fairview) needed to look at more stability and a long-term solution, like the break I got 44 years ago. Somebody gave me a chance, and I look at it that way."

Cooksey credited mentors Cooke, Paul Reliford and Bob Morrison, as well as the administration, players and assistant coaches at each of his stops, for what he said was a career of 44 years in which "every one of them have been positive experiences."

He wrapped that up by skippering Fairview's girls basketball team to a 21-8 campaign this past winter, a nine-win improvement over the year before which translated to one of the best seasons in school history.

If that is the last act in a coaching career that included five 16th Region All "A" Classic boys basketball championships at Fairview, the Eagles' region tournament runner-up finish in 1990, Fairview's first football playoff game in 1987, Ashland tennis doubles team Amity Chapman and Jessica Virgin's 1998 state title, Fairview's third-place finish in the Class A girls state track meet in 2004 and Ironton St. Joe's Division IV sectional title and trip to the Convocation Center in 2017 -- it fit in with what Cooksey called a program-building mentality.

"I always used to tell my players, you just don't start playing, you gotta dig a foundation and build on it," Cooksey said. "I felt like our girls did that."

Cooksey, 64, can remember as a child in the 1960s seeing Bob Knight, then the coach at Army, and Joe B. Hall come to Fairview's old gym to recruit Eagles big man Jimmy Day.

"I've seen it all, and I've seen the growth of the program and the school," he said. "Fairview will always be home."

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