Jason Mays, the new Ashland Tomcat basketball coach, is smart enough to understand the role that tradition plays in the community and the program itself.
It was with that in mind that he set up a celebration night with perhaps the greatest Tomcat of them all.
Larry Conley, who was part of the memorable ’61 Tomcats that won a state championship and then practically willed the ’62 Tomcats back to the championship game, was back in front of today’s players Thursday night in an event that Mays hopes can stir the echoes.
Do they remember Larry Conley? Probably not, but their parents and grandparents – not to mention countless other fans who were among more than 100 in attendance – sure did.
For those who don’t remember him as a player surely remembered him as a college basketball television analyst that had an illustrious 42-year broadcasting career. He estimated covering 1,800 basketball games and 600 baseball games and most of those involved SEC teams.
Conley is 73 and still has that slender body that made him a basketball dynamo. The ’61 Tomcats are still remembered as one of Kentucky’s greatest state champions by those who have seen many of them, including former Herald-Leader columnist Billy Reed and former Herald-Leader sportswriter Mike Fields.
You can learn more about that team in my book called “Teamwork” (shameless promotion).
Conley talked about being a gym rat from an early age since his father, George, was the fiery coach of the Tomcats from 1949-54, guiding some of Ashland’s greatest teams and players, including the 1953 team that was ranked No. 1 but upset in the state tournament’s opening round.
Jim Host, a manager on that team, is still convinced the ’53 team was the best of all time. But those in ’61 beg to differ and they have the big trophy as proof that the 36-1 Tomcats team holds that distinction.
Nevertheless, that’s an argument for another day. Both are part of a Tomcat tradition that has few equals.
Conley said he learned his first lesson of discipline during a practice session when as a little tyke he picked up a basketball and began dribbling it when his father was addressing the team. Bad idea, he quickly learned, when his father turned to find out who was interrupting him.
“I learned that day to be quiet whenever the coach is talking,” he said.
Conley was cordial and affable, encouraging the young players to respect what their teammates could do, improve their weakness and take care of business in the classroom. It was great advice.
He also showed reverence for his coaches and none anymore than the late Bob Wright, his coach with the Tomcats who molded these talented players into a team for the ages. Conley talked about the amazing Harold Sargent, who could do anything with a basketball, and how this team was built to win. The top seven players all received Division I scholarships. Six of the seven are still living. Bob Hilton passed away many years ago.
Conley, of course, played for Adolph Rupp but he said that Rupp never saw him until he signed him to play for the Wildcats. Recruitment was different in those days, he said. “If you were a good player in Kentucky it was a given that you were going to Kentucky,” he said.
Wright kept the players letters from colleges until after the season and Conley said he gave him four boxes of letters when his senior season ended.
Conley said he did make a visit to Duke, drawing a groan from the crowd.
He remembered a time when Rupp came up to him and asked a question. “Conley, who is the better coach, me or your high school coach?” Conley said while imitating Rupp’s high-pitched voice. While Conley answered “correctly,” he said it was the “hesitation that got me in trouble.”
“Conley, you son of a gun, you’ve got a lot to learn,” he said was Rupp’s reply, Conley said, mimicking his southern drawl.
He also talked about his broadcasting career and some of the most memorable games, including the 1992 battle between Arkansas and Kentucky in the SEC Tournament. He said Rick Pitino was one of the two or three best coaches he was ever around, that he actually liked Bruce Pearl (more groans) and disliked Dale Brown. He said he eventually got to appreciate Nolan Richardson because of how hard the Razorbacks played for him.
It was a good night with one of the Tomcats finest ambassadors and best-ever players who told the team and audience that he’d try to make it back to watch them play in the Ashland Invitational Tournament.
Kudos to Coach Mays for putting tradition on display by reaching out to Conley for the event. Part of his job, as I’m sure he sees it, is to restore some of that tradition. The Tomcats are currently in the longest stretch between 16th Region championships. They last raised a banner in 2002.