It has been a little over 20 years since it looked like Sean Woods had hit the shot with 2.1 seconds left in overtime to give Kentucky a monumental upset of Duke in the NCAA Tournament East Regional final only to have Christian Laettner hit the shot that still makes highlight reels to beat Kentucky.
But rather than dreading those memories, Woods embraces them. And that’s probably wise, since the new Morehead State coach acknowledges the first thing people bring up when they see him or meet him is that game. The way Woods sees it, he’s glad he made a contribution that makes people remember who he was because he made that shot.
“How many go through life and one day pass away and have not left a legacy? When you mention Sean, Richie (Farmer), Deron (Feldhaus), we are always going to be part of history. How many young men or women can say that?” said Woods, 42. “This will be remembered past my lifetime. I look at it as an honor and privilege to be mentioned and remembered for what happened in that great game.”
Woods’ players at Mississippi Valley State — who went 21-13 before losing a big lead and falling to Western Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament — were far too young to remember that game. So will his players at Morehead. However, Woods says college basketball players know about the shot.
“Kids will ask me about that play. Every March they see the game, or the highlights. So I cannot run away from it,” Woods said. “Anyone who plays the game wants to be remembered. I would rather be remembered for us winning the game, but it is what it is. I can’t hide from it, so I may as well enjoy it.”
Woods played at UK from 1998-92 under Rick Pitino and had been on the coaching staffs at TCU (2006-08), Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (2005-06) and High Point (2003-05) before taking over at Mississippi Valley State.
He shared these thoughts on his new job:
Question: What made you want to come to Morehead?
Woods: “It was a series of things starting with a great coaching opportunity. Second, everything works out for a reason. It seemed like my name was mentioned as being involved with every coaching job that came open, even Mississippi State. I went after some and was involved in a couple down to the wire, but it was just meant for me to come back home. My wife is happy. She has been all over the place the last 10,11 years with me. Donnie (Tyndall) has done a great job of setting the stage here and now I can take it farther.”
Question: How have you changed from that confident, enthusiastic point guard that played for Kentucky, or have you?
Woods: “I am who I am. What got me this far is confidence. It’s just who I am. Have I matured? Yeah. I am not the same kid, but personality-wise I am still the same Sean that you know or have known for years. I think that is good, too. It has helped me in my coaching career. I am humbled, but I am still the same hungry individual and I am still confident about myself. I want my teams to be that way. We will not be scared of anybody. I think players relate to that. I have been one of them before. To have a coach that thinks and feels that way and goes into battle with that mentality helps a team and players.”
Question: You are the coach at Morehead, but does being a former Cat and former Rick Pitino player help you in various ways?
Woods: “No doubt about it that it helps. Don’t misunderstand what I said about being the coach at Morehead and not the point guard at Kentucky. Who I am and what I¿bring to the table is a plus and helps get in doors. I’m¿going to use that, but I¿am the coach at Morehead. But everybody can relate to me because of my familiarity. I am a guy who played at UK. My whole focus will be on Morehead, but my past does help me. It brings much more of an interest to Morehead and I am hoping a lot of UK¿fans will want to come and see us play.”
Question: Would playing Kentucky and Louisville regularly be something you would hope to do?
Woods: “No doubt about that. Just like Goanzaga playing UCLA. I want Morehead in a situation where we are playing top schools and for us to be respectable doing that like Butler or Gonzaga and give those teams trouble and maybe sting one. I want to try to take this program a step further from a national standpoint.”
Question: Since you have been to Rupp Arena as a coach before, will it be any different this year bringing an in-state team to Rupp when Morehead plays Kentucky Nov. 21?
Woods: “I am not looking at it that way. I will not look at it that way. I have coached there. It has always been an exciting situation for me, but nothing overwhelming. It will be great for Morehead State, and that is what it is all about. The game is good for fans and players. Heck, most Morehead fans are UK fans, too, and that’s great.”
Question: What is the biggest plus about Morehead basketball?
Woods: “Donnie laid a great foundation. He has made it respectable in the country. With my credibility and notoriety I hope to bring the same succes and take it a step further. From a selling standpoint, resource standpoint, facility standpoint, no doubt it is an easier job than what I¿have had. Now guys I know in the recruiting world can justify sending me a much better player at Morehead than they could at Mississippi Valley State.”
Question: Will it be harder to win at Morehead in the Ohio Valley Conference than it was at Mississippi Valley State?
Woods: “In every conference it is hard to win no matter where you are at. Just a different level, different beat, different type of players, different coaches. Conference play is always tough. I could go to the SEC and come back down to the Sun Belt and it would still be tough in conference play. Nothing changes. It’s hard to go unbeaten in any conference.
“Morehead has some great pieces coming back. Donnie left some players. I have got to solidify the guys he had recruited and let them know it is okay to still play for me. I have to sell them all over. But the kids that are left and the way they play fits real well with the way I play. I like that.”
Question: How much would you have liked a chance to play UK¿in the NCAA last year?
Woods: “I would have loved it. I would have loved beating Western. That burns my belly more than the opportunity to play Kentucky that we didn’t get because we lost. We were right there. I wouldn’t change a thing. Those kids played their hearts out all year long. To win 19 of 21 games like we did at the end was remarkable with those kids. For them to have one bad three-minute stretch in the year, come on. What more could I have asked? Nothing against those guys. We overachieved, did something no one at our school had ever did and raised bar. They left their legacy.”
Question: Did you learn things from that loss that made you a better coach?
Woods: “It has already helped me. First, it was that team and those kids first time on that stage. Playing in front of the president of the United States. How many teams get to do that? Those kids outplayed Western Kentucky for 36 minutes in front of the whole world. To have a bad stretch, partially due to fatigue, was not what we wanted, but I was proud of my guys. No one every thought we would reach that pinnacle.”
Question: Has the amount of media attention you have received now — and every time you have been back to Kentucky — surprised you?
Woods: “It has been really good for me and the program. I have not been back in Kentucky for so long. It has just reminded me how passionate the commonwealth of Kentucky is about basketball and guys that play at Kentucky. I am humbled by all of this. It is a great opportunity for me to come back and coach at Morehead and do my very best. There is even more pride for me being back in the state of Kentucky.”
Question: Since you played high school basketball in Indiana, why do you keep refering to “coming home” when talking about Morehead?
Woods: “I lived here. My mom is from Lexington. My roots are here. Since I put on the blue and white I¿have considered myself a Kentuckian. We all go off and then come back to Kentucky. We all consider Kentucky home. All who play here feel that way. My wife is from Lexington. My kids were born here. I am all about Kentucky and glad to be back home.”