This is an anniversary season for Ashland Tomcat football.
Thirty years ago, a team directed by coach Vic March steamrolled through opponent after opponent en route to a 14-1 record and the Class AAA state championship.
Forty-five years ago, a team with the nickname “JAWS” terrorized football fields throughout the state en route to the Class AAAA State At-Large championship.
Five years ago, Ashland’s 2015 football team was given the privilege of a step back into the time capsule when about a dozen members of the JAWS team and Coach Herb Conley paid a visit to the locker room before the Tomcats took the field to play George Washington.
West Point grads Greg Jackson and Chuck Anderson spoke first to the Tomcat players who were dressed and ready for action. They talked about commitment and unselfishness and how they’d practically give their left arm for another chance to play in Putnam Stadium.
Anderson, who served 32 years in the military and rose to the rank of general, commanded attention quickly when he immediately told them to “Put your eyes on me.”
Nobody was looking down, shuffling feet or doing anything but listening to “The General” offer advice and make wishes of his own. “What I wouldn’t give for one more game …”
Jackson told them that three running backs were there — Gary Thomas, Jeff Slone and himself — and how their favorite part of the game was blocking for each other. It didn’t matter who got the yards as long as the job got done, he said. It was the lesson on unselfishness.
Jackson’s short speech was good, showing the kind of discipline that has served him well on the football field and throughout life to a management position at Marathon.
Lessons were learned in football and applied in life.
But when it came Coach Conley’s turn to address the team it was clearly a throwback to 1975 when the fiery coach took this JAWS team to the top of high school football in Kentucky. Those Tomcats took on the attitude and character of their coach and these Tomcats could take a lesson from their playbook.
You can ask anyone who heard him: Coach Conley still has that competitive fire burning in his belly, he has the mannerism that motivators possess and that desire to bring out the best in people with a single sentence or look.
The roomful of Tomcats didn’t take their eyes off him — they wouldn’t dare — as his speech grew louder and louder and louder. When Coach Conley talks, he does it with his eyes too and when the eyes began to squint and the wrinkle came out above the bridge of his nose, I knew this giant of coaching was back in form. It may have been 39 years ago — his last year of coaching at Ashland was 1976 — since Conley addressed a group of Tomcats before a game.
It was surreal watching this man who is so admired and idolized by his former players deliver a message to this young Tomcat team. He is old enough to be a grandfather to most of them but what was coming from inside of him was pure blood-and-guts coach. I wish every team in the area had the opportunity to hear him.
His JAWS players were standing behind him and sweat was starting to bead up on their own now (mostly) bald heads. They’d gotten all lathered up before by similar messages from Coach Conley before football games and you could almost see the fire building inside them with every word he spoke.
“I was ready to go out and run sprints,” Jackson said.
“He had me ready to play,” said Terry Bell, the best defensive player in Kentucky in 1975.
The last thing he told them: “I believe in you.”
With that, the team stood up in unison, clapping and yelling as the JAWS Tomcats exited the locker room with their coach.
I hope it’s a moment they remember and treasure and don’t take for granted. Ashland’s version of Knute Rockne was in the house one more time.
Maybe the 2020 Tomcats can learn a lesson from this as well as they prepare to make history Friday night against Belfry.