Former players recall when 'Peck' was king of the court

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Played for WKU and built U of L's basketball program

By Ron Benningfield

Bernard “Peck” Hickman, best known for turning the University of Louisville’s men’s basketball team into one of the nation’s best, tipped off his coaching career at Hodgenville High School.

The former coach and athletic director at U of L, who died in 2000 at the age of 88, began mentoring the Hodgenville teams in 1935 after receiving a bachelor’s degree in physical education at Western Kentucky University (then State Teacher’s College) where he was a star guard.

He was a member of Western’s first 20-win squad in 1934 and overall, his three varsity Topper teams were 68-17 for an .800 winning mark.

Local resident and businessman A.G. Back, Jr., who was an All-American guard at the U.S. Naval Academy, spent all four of his high school basketball seasons at Hodgenville under Hickman’s tutelage.

“He coached basketball and football at Hodgenville, but he was really a basketball man,” said Back. “He was a strict coach who demanded your attention.”

“He always held a basketball when he coached practice,” he added. “If he caught you looking away from him, you were likely to get a basketball thrown in your face.”

The coach also punished players’ mistakes by having them run up and down the bleachers.

Though acknowledging that Hickman coached with fear as a motivator, Back also noted that his teams responded with winning records. After a 3-18 finish Peck’s first year at the helm, his teams steadily improved.

“My senior year, we were ranked high in the standings,” said Back. “We lost only two games that year – to Buffalo and Central City.”

Hickman, a Central City native, was an All-State guard at Central City High School. He arranged games in 1939-40, Back’s senior year, not only with area teams but also with Central City, Drakesboro and Greenville, with Hodgenville beating the two latter teams.

“We were favored to win our district that year, but Glendale beat us in the first game of the tournament,” Back said.

While at Hodgenville, Hickman met and married the former Alene Elmore who died in 1982. 

He left Hodgenville to coach at Valley High School in Jefferson County. After eight seasons as a high school coach, compiling a 216-49 record, he accepted the position of head basketball coach at the University of Louisville in 1944.

Cortland “Corky” Cox, a member of University of Louisville’s Athletic Hall of Fame who was voted Most Valuable Player his senior year, remembers his first meeting with Hickman.

“He had already left for U of L by the time I was playing at Valley, but he scouted me one night in a game against Fairdale,” Cox, former LaRue County High School principal and district administrator, recalled.

In that game, Cox was fouled just before the final buzzer sounded with his team down by one point. With no time showing on the clock, he sank both free throws to notch the win. Fans rushed onto the floor, including the cheerleaders, hugging and congratulating Cox and his teammates.

“I was in the dressing room after the game when Mr. Hickman walked in,” Cox said. “The first words he said to me were, ‘Wipe that lipstick off your face, boy!’”

Cox learned much more about the coach as he played for him as a Cardinal.

“He was a tough disciplinarian, very demanding, but he also showed compassion, and if you played for him, if you were one of his boys as he called us, he would do anything for you,” said Cox.

When Hickman arrived at U of L, the Cardinals had produced only one winning season in their previous nine, totaling a 137-167 record.

Hickman’s first Cardinal team went 16-3, starting a string of 46 consecutive winning seasons for the school, an NCAA record. In 23 seasons at U of L (1944-67) Hickman coached the Cards to a 443-183 overall record, (.708 winning percentage), placing him among the top 45 NCAA Division I coaches of all time.

He never had a team with a losing record, producing 11 20-win seasons while averaging 19 victories. He guided the Cardinals to five NCAA Tournament appearances and six NIT appearances.

In his fourth season at U of L, his team capped a 29-6 campaign by winning the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball Tournament (NAIB) in 1948, the school’s first national championship. Eight years later, his 1956 team claimed the NIT title, finishing with a 26-3 record.

Over 82 percent of his U of L players graduated with 108 of 131 players earning degrees. Hickman took over the administrative responsibilities of serving as U of L’s Director of Athletics in 1954.

He remained in the dual role of athletic director and head basketball coach until his retirement from coaching in 1967. His .708 winning percentage ranked seventh among active major college coaches when he retired to devote full time to his athletic director duties, a position he held until 1973.

Hickman was named to the Helms Athletic Foundation Hall of Fame in 1967 and to the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics Hall in 1981.

“He was instrumental in my getting a coaching position in LaRue County,” Cox said. 

Hickman drove Cox to Hodgenville for an interview with the district’s superintendent, Ova Haney, and Hodgenville High School principal, E.G. Sanders.

As the two were returning to Louisville after the interview, Hickman told the young job prospect that he should have talked more during the interview.

“I replied, ‘I didn’t have time to talk because you were talking so much, Coach.’”

“The first words he said to me were, ‘Wipe that lipstick off your face, boy!’”

Cortland “Corky” Cox 

about former coach

Bernard Hickman