ELIZABETHTOWN — Phil Cox cemented his position as a Kentucky high school basketball legend on Saturday with his induction into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame in ceremonies at the State Theatre in Elizabethtown. Cox was one of 19 inductees in the 2017 class, giving the Hall of Fame 100 members to mark the 100th anniversary of high school basketball in the commonwealth.
“It’s a humbling experience, and I’m very appreciative of the opportunity,” said Cox, just before the induction ceremony. “I’ve really enjoyed meeting everyone and the experience. My kids are really enjoying it. I don’t think they thought they would see their dad in a museum. It’s really neat. My mother (Mickey Cox) passed away about 19 years ago, but she was a big sports fan. I wish she had the opportunity to see this. She really worked with me and put in the time.”
Cox was a standout at Loyall Elementary School, playing for Billy Hicks, another Hall of Fame member and Harlan County native who graduated from Evarts High School in 1970. He arrived at Cawood High School in the fall of 1977 and was the sixth man on the 1978 Cawood team led by all-stater Greg Coldiron and coach John D. Wilson. The Trojans won their third straight 52nd District title but were upset by Pineville in the first round of the 13th Region Tournament, finishing the season with a 24-2 record.
After moving into the starting lineup as a sophomore, Cox earned all-state honors by the time he was a junior when he averaged 35 points a game. He was Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball as a senior, leading the Trojans to another 52nd District title and a 13th Region runner-up finish as he averaged 28 points a game and surpassed Harlan star Wah Wah Jones (one of three members of the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame from Harlan County, along with Cox and Hicks) as the county’s all-time scoring leader at the time with 2,401 points.
Cox ended up at Vanderbilt University as the first player C.M. Newton signed when he took over as coach of the Commodores, earning a starting job in his first game when he scored 30 points against Duke. He was a four-year starter at Vandy, setting the school scoring record by the time he graduated.
“I just wanted to get an education because that’s the key to everything,” Cox said. “I feel very blessed and that the Lord has been good to me. It’s been great to meet everyone here. The people of Elizabethtown have done a tremendous job with all this.”
After one season in the Continental Basketball League, Cox became the head coach at Lincoln Memorial University and posted an 84-60 record in five years, leading the Railsplitters to two league championship. He coached another Cawood High School all-stater at LMU as Nick Sanford earned NAIA All-American honors at LMU. Harlan graduate Rodrick Robinson was also a standout for LMU in the 1980s.
Cox, the father of three children, is now the principal at Jefferson Middle School in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He said he has learned to appreciate the education he received in Harlan County after becoming an administrator.
“I look back now, in my 17th year as an administrator and 24th year in education, and it really makes me appreciate the staff at James A. Cawood High School and what they taught me in the classroom and about life,” he said. “It was a very strong staff. I wouldn’t have been able to get through Vanderbilt if not for the staff at James A. Cawood. I appreciate them even more all these years later. I felt the teachers made connections with kids, and I try to do that with my staff. As you get older, you tend to appreciate things a little more and I do that now. I wouldn’t be in this position without that background.”
Cox’s wife, Kim, is a preschool teacher in Oak Ridge in the same system as her husband. Their daughter, Callie, 23, played basketball four years at Milligan College and will start her teaching career in the fall. Trevor, 18, will be a freshman at the University of Tennessee in the fall. Their youngest son, Eli, is 14.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134