By Mark Edwards
Decatur Daily Sports Editor

Ricky Bowling followed older brother Wayne as a star high school athlete, a college standout at St. Bernard College and then a loyal and accomplished high school basketball coach. Now, Ricky is following Wayne once again. This time, Ricky Bowling, 58, is entering the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame as part of this year's induction class. The Hall of Fame inducted Wayne Bowling, 70, in 2001.

And while it's Ricky Bowling's talent and drive as a West Morgan High basketball and baseball player and coach that landed him in the Hall, he is quick to credit Wayne, who provided his younger brother with a role model, friend and strong supporter. Even with the 12-year gap in ages, Wayne and Ricky are close, and Wayne's nudge here and there when needed made a difference.

"Even when Wayne went to college, he was living at home during the summers, and I always felt like he was supporting me when I was playing," said Ricky Bowling, who was the youngest in a family that included two older brothers and five older sisters. "When he was coaching (at Danville) and I was playing (at West Morgan), he always wanted me to do well - just not when we were playing his team.

"When we coached against each other, we were bitter rivals during the game. We could get so mad at each other, but when the game was over, it was over. Afterward, he would call me or I would call him. We played independent baseball on the same teams. We play golf together. We still play slow-pitch softball together."

Ricky said that all eight of the Bowling brothers and sisters loved sports and were involved in them. There was a basketball goal outside their house. Ricky would play ball on it with neighborhood boys, especially his best friend, Larry Owens, who lived across the street and one house down. Sometimes they would play in the morning just before heading to school.

Ricky wasn't big. Even though he grew to 6-foot-1 by the time he joined the West Morgan varsity, he never weighed more than 140 pounds in high school. A Decatur Daily story from 1971 described him as "slightly more muscular than a blade of grass." But that hardly mattered, and Wayne saw that immediately.

"Ricky was a good player," Wayne said. "Physically, he wasn't real strong, but he was a good shooter. He knew the game and was a good team player." Wayne had helped old Austinville High to a state championship, and while Ricky wasn't able to help West Morgan bring home a trophy, he did help the Rebels reach unprecedented heights. As a senior in 1971, he averaged 24.6 points a game for the first West Morgan team to make the state basketball tournament, back when it included eight teams. It wasn't an easy path, either. West Morgan had to win the Class 2A, Area 13 tournament and then the 2A, Region 7 playoff.

In the Area 13 tournament, Wayne's Danville team was seeded No. 1, but the Hawks fell before meeting West Morgan. Ricky's Rebels beat Falkville 73-55 in the semifinals as Bowling scored 25 points. Then in the finals, they met rival Cotaco. The two teams had split four previous games, although West Morgan won an important matchup in the Central Valley Conference tournament finals. In the Area 13 rematch, West Morgan won 58-56. Bowling had 18, but Mike Love hit the game-winner at the buzzer for his only basket of the game.

In the Region 7 playoff, the Rebels disposed of Hatton 71-65 as Bowling had 19 points and teammate Larry Keenum, also a Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame inductee, had 20.The season ended in the state tournament quarterfinals with a 75-71 loss to Section. Bowling nearly didn't play for West Morgan that year. His mother, Thelma Cleo Bowling, had died when he was in 10th grade, and by the time he was entering his senior year, his father, Austell Bowling, had married again to Emma Jean Bowling.

The family moved, and Ricky had the option of remaining at West Morgan or transferring to either Hartselle or Danville. All three options were good for him. West Morgan was home, while Hartselle had a good team returning - in fact, the Tigers won the Class 3A state title that year. Danville, of course, was coached by Wayne Bowling. "I had been at West Morgan too long to leave," Ricky Bowling said. "I had known those guys for years. We were changing coaches (to Jackie Coulter), but I felt like he would be good and that we were going to have a good team. "I couldn't have gone too wrong no matter where I went."

Bowling also was a good baseball player and had dreamed of playing in the major leagues one day, especially when he was a little boy and cheered for Mickey Mantle's New York Yankees. Bowling batted at least .420 in each of his final three years at West Morgan, while playing first base, second base, shortstop and pitcher.

But when debating his college choices, he felt his best chances were in basketball. After all, not only was he an all-state guard, but he had been selected to the state's North-South All-Star Game, leading his team with 13 points. He gained plenty of collegiate attention, including interest from Clemson, which wanted him to walk on. He was promised a scholarship, but only if he made the team. Rather than take that risk, he chose St. Bernard, where Wayne had been a star. "It was a small school and not too far from home," Ricky Bowling said. "I felt it was a good fit for me." However, he was recruited there by the same coach who oversaw Wayne's St. Bernard teams, Don Richards, who retired by the time Ricky landed on campus. Playing for a new coach, Ricky didn't get on the court a whole lot. In fact, he started only one game in his four years. "It was one of those games when the seniors are honored," Bowling said. "I scored 30 points."

He wasn't allowed to play baseball his first two years at St. Bernard but did as a junior and senior. The team won a conference championship his senior year, as he finished second on the team with a .353 batting average. He joked that he started every game his senior season except two in which he really wanted to play. The team opened the season with two games against Alabama, which was led by Keenum, one of Bowling's friends from West Morgan. "I pinch-hit in both games and got a hit both times. I don't know why I didn't get to start those games, but I started every other time," said Bowling, who added that it might have been because he joined baseball practice late after the end of basketball season.

When he graduated, he returned home and got a job at West Morgan. He coached the baseball team from 1975-77, but the school chose not to retain him. For the first time since he was a little boy, he wasn't part of organized athletics, as he worked in private business for three years.

He finally managed to get back in the game in 1980 when Austin High coach Joe Jones hired him as an assistant coach. He remained there one year before the West Morgan basketball coach at the time, Ricky Lenox, invited Bowling back as an assistant. Bowling took the position, but he was starting to get anxious about still not being a basketball head coach. Again, it was Wayne who helped with needed advice. "He told me that he thought I would get a head coaching job within three years," Ricky Bowling said. "It helped to hear that."

Sure enough, three years later, Lenox stepped down, and Ricky Bowling took over the program. And once again, it was Wayne who provided an important tip for his younger brother. "I told him that he couldn't worry about the players liking him," Wayne Bowling said. "Young coaches sometimes try to be one of the kids. I told that for him to survive, he had to have their respect first. He had to make decisions they may not like. I told him that the liking would come later after they respected him."

Ricky Bowling said that helped. He remembered the advice as he worked the job that would define his professional career. He also had another goal - to give his players some stability. Before Bowling took over, West Morgan never had had a coach who stayed more than six years. He figured he should stay longer than that."When I played at West Morgan, I had six different coaches in six years," Bowling said. "That was hard, and I didn't want the kids to have that."

He wound up serving as head basketball coach for 27 years. His basketball teams advanced to the Northwest Regional seven times and the state's final eight twice. He won four Morgan County titles, including his final season. He won 428 basketball games and was so beloved by his school that after he retired, West Morgan renamed the gym in his honor. He wasn't a bad baseball coach, either, winning 166 games during 1975-77 and 1986-96. Four his teams made the state's final eight, and one made the final four.

In the end, Ricky and Wayne Bowling wound up as one of the state's most successful pair of brothers in high school coaching. Wayne won 684 basketball games at Danville during 1963-2001. As for their records, Wayne isn't surprised that his brother did so well. "I always thought he knew the game and knew how to work with the kids," Wayne said.

Ricky's wife of 26 years is Cindy Bowling. He has a son (Michael Bowling) and a daughter (Molly Bowling) and two grandchildren.

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