Joe Hampton knew long ago he would retire from teaching in 2020. The way the most recent Lewis County boys basketball season ended made the next part easier.
"It was probably more rewarding than maybe any season," Hampton said of the Lions' 2019-20 campaign, which began 3-9 and with a No. 4 seed in the 63rd District Tournament and culminated in a trip to the 16th Region Tournament final. "It wasn't enjoyable all the way through, as you saw in December, but just the perseverance, sticking with it and continuing to work and not give up was the biggest thing."
The most recent late-season resurgence in a career full of them was also the last for the coach nicknamed "Mr. March." Hampton, the longest-tenured active boys basketball coach in the 16th Region informed the Lions on Thursday night that he is retiring.
Lewis County won a program-high 279 games and eight district tournament titles under Hampton and competed in two region tournament finals -- the only two in the school's history.
Hampton took over as Lewis County's interim coach one game into the 1999-2000 season for Anthony Applegate, who stepped away under medical advice. Hampton's first game after being officially hired was against Ashland on Dec. 14, 1999, with Mike Flynn as his opposing Tomcats number, and his last was the region final against Ashland and coach Jason Mays on March 10.
"Full circle, huh?" Hampton said.
Flynn and Mays were two of four Ashland coaches that Hampton worked against. Only four 16th Region schools had as few as two bench bosses during Hampton's 21-season tenure at Lewis County -- East Carter, Elliott County, Morgan County and Rowan County.
Hampton also served as Lewis County's athletic director and at various times during a 32-year teaching and coaching career was an assistant football and softball coach, the volleyball coach in an emergency for a district seeding match in 2018 -- victoriously -- and was slated to coach the softball Lady Lions this spring before the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the season.
Steven Thomas played on the first team Hampton coached at Lewis County Middle School. Thomas's son, Bailey, was a junior guard for this season's Lions.
"To get to do it in your hometown is special, where you went to school and lived pretty much all your life," Hampton, a 1983 Lewis County graduate, said. "I told parents (Thursday night), I'm gonna get out before they run me out. We said that jokingly, but it is a hard thing to do in your hometown, to survive that long. I've had a lot of support from everybody ... the big thing I feel I've been very fortunate with."
Hampton turns 55 next month, which is a "magic number" in regard to educators and their retirement, he said.
"I've got my years in and am at the right age to get pretty much as good as I can get retirement-wise," he said. "I've targeted this date for some time knowing that's when I would retire from teaching. The coaching part I deliberated on. It's been up in the air. But after this long layoff -- it's really been as long as I've ever probably been away from the team through any part of the years I've coached -- it's helped me make that decision a little easier.
"I realized I've enjoyed this time off, to be honest with you, and being away. Nothing lasts forever, and I knew that at some point I'd be sitting down. I thought our run we ended with this year was almost as good as it could possibly be, and the timing was good for everything."
Veteran Lions assistant James "Bo" Silvey also retired. He'd been with Hampton the whole way except for one season due to health issues.
"I would like to thank coach Hampton and coach Silvey for their dedication to the basketball program at Lewis County High School," principal Jack Lykins said. "As a principal, these two were great to work with and I will miss that each day. As a basketball fan, I want to thank them for taking Lewis County basketball to places we haven’t been in years. They leave the program in great shape and very respected in the area. Coach Hampton ended his career with back-to-back district titles, just like he began it."
Lykins jokingly pointed out he will make Lewis County's first boys basketball coaching hire this century. Hampton coached Lykins in Babe Ruth baseball and was a Lions assistant in Lykins's senior basketball season.
Lewis County's last game under Hampton was the region final against Ashland, which completed an undefeated season that ended without a trip to the Sweet Sixteen due to the pandemic.
"One thing I did tell the team, obviously Lewis County's never made it to the state tournament," Hampton said, "and as bad as we would've loved to have won that last game this year, and I'm never content with losing, I'd have been devastated if we would've won that game and then didn't get to go."
Josh Hughes and Jay Fite will share athletic director duties, Lykins said.
Hampton plans to keep busy working with his brother on the farm where he lives a few miles west of Vanceburg and spend more time on the golf course.
"Jack asked me that," Hampton said of what was next, "and I said, 'Just start living.' Basketball is so time-consuming, and at the end of each season you just feel totally exhausted, and I feel like the older I get, the more exhausted I get each year, and it's harder to recover.
"I've got a lot of friends that go south during the winter. Those are decisions that I looked at: do I want to be coaching in January and be frustrated because we're not having success, and say, 'I should be in Florida right now with my buddies playing golf?' Things like that, when you've coached long enough, you kinda weigh them out."
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