For the past 45 years, the Ashland Tomcats JAWS football team has endured the painful necessity of defending its 14-1 championship season.
By now, the fiercest supporters of the notion have developed a bit of a chip (boulder?) when the subject pops up when listing Tomcat championship seasons in stories or on t-shirts.
They defend it as fiercely as they did the goal line back in 1975 when it wasn’t safe to be an opponent in Putnam Stadium. It was one of the hardest-hitting defenses anybody could ever remember. Even some of the oldest old-timers, who played before facemasks were a thing, agreed that this team smelled blood in the water. Opponents were just so much chum.
“Those guys,” said the late great Ralph Felty, an All-State lineman from 1937, “they could play with us. Most of these teams, they couldn’t carry our jocks.”
Felty played when boys were men and talk was cheap. He knew tough when he saw it and this JAWS team was tough, the personification of their tougher-than-nails coach, 34-year-old Herb Conley, whose statue is on the Putnam Stadium concourse.
Their JAWS defense was named after the blockbuster movie of the same name. It seemed fitting and everybody was all about it. Even the band learned the dramatic JAWS song. You know the one, when the shark was about to attack. Duunnn dunnn… duuuunnnn duun… duuunnnnnnnn dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnn dunnnn. The newspaper did a feature on the defense and took photographs of the players holding the large movie letters on a hillside. Vintage stuff. It’s all part of the legacy.
These Tomcats, who put together the first undefeated regular season since 1958 and the last until the this season, were still practicing when the Reds and Red Sox were staging the greatest World Series ever played.
Ashland’s 14th consecutive victory – the most in school history in a single season – came on a cold November Friday night in Paducah, practically on the opposite end of our elongated state, in a 13-7 victory that came after Gary Thomas went off tackle and sped 85 yards for a touchdown to break a 7-7 deadlock in the fourth quarter. The game was so far away that the Tomcats chartered a plane for the morning of the game and then flew home the next day. It came with a $10,000 price tag that the Tomcat Boosters came up with in a few days.
They needed an extra seat for the trophy on the ride home. It was shaped like the state of Kentucky and the brass plaque on the front read: KHSAA 1975 STATE AT LARGE CHAMPIONS.
The sportswriters of that day – not just in Ashland but those from Louisville, Lexington and Paducah – called it the 4A State championship game. St. Xavier won the 4A Jefferson County championship game. The showdown was set between the Tomcats and St. X.
The win over Paducah was the second of three playoff games on the road for Ashland despite being the highest ranked team among Class AAAA schools outside Louisville. The first postseason win came against Dixie Heights, located along the Ohio River in frozen northern Kentucky on one of the coldest nights anyone can ever remember, and then came the only home game of the playoffs, a win over Lafayette, before the trip to Paducah.
The Tomcats don’t apologize for losing 20-0 to St. Xavier – another road game, this one in Louisville – in the Class AAAA overall state championship game. They lost a numbers game as much as they lost a football game on that December afternoon in Louisville. Sure it hurt to lose, they had been conditioned to do nothing but win, and they played St. X as well as anybody had all season. But they were overwhelmed by numbers.
Conley said the Tomcats could have taken his top 15 against their top 15 and won seven of 10 games. But the odds were not in Ashland’s favor. St. X rolled out 104 players dressed in green-and-gold like the Green Bay Packers. They came out for pregame warmups and encircled the entire field while the Tomcats were warming up with about half that many players. St. X had a fresh 11 for offense, defense, special teams and it became too much, eventually wearing them down.
So what’s their argument? Didn’t they lose the state championship game?
Well, yes and no. They lost to St. X , yes, but there’s a trophy in the lobby of Anderson gym that has state champion on it that backs up their argument of being the State At-Large champion of 1975. The trophy doesn’t say semifinalist or state runner-up. It says State At-Large Champion.
Here is some background on making the case for calling the Ashland 1975 JAWS football team state champions.
Back in February 1975, the Board of Controls for the Kentucky High School Athletic Association met and a four-class system for football was put into place.
Class AAAA was the largest division and it consisted of the schools in Jefferson County, except for Kentucky Country Day and Beth Haven, and all other member schools with an enrollment of 1,000 or more in grades 10-12.
In northeastern Kentucky, three schools fit that formula – Ashland, Boyd County and Greenup County. Those schools formed a district and the champion – and only the champion – would advance to the playoffs.
From 1959 to 1974, the KHSAA used a three-class system. All schools in Jefferson County, which includes the state’s largest city of Louisville, were placed in Class AAA regardless of enrollment. The remaining schools in the state were in Class AA or Class A based on enrollment.
The change in classification to add Class AAAA in 1975 was the first time the Louisville schools would be playing somebody besides one of their own for the championship.
They made separate divisions in Class AAAA – a state at-large division that included every school except Jefferson County and another one for Jefferson County schools only. Those divisions would each come up with a state champion and then those champions would meet in a sort of Super Bowl of Kentucky, or what was called the overall Class AAAA state championship.
The Tomcats were the first team from within the state to play a Jefferson County/Louisville school in a championship football game.
The Class AAA crowns could belong to nobody except Louisville teams because nobody else in the state was in that classification except them from 1959 to 1974. For instance, when Ashland won the Class AA crown in 1967 over Elizabethtown, the Class AAA title that year went to Louisville Flaget, which defeated Thomas Jefferson 21-0. Could the 67 Tomcats have beaten Flaget? Maybe, but we’ll never know. They didn’t have to play them.
If Ashland’s 1975 season had stopped with Paducah for the Class AAAA State At-Large title, like had happened the previous 16 years in the playoffs, the Tomcats would have completed the perfect 14-0 season. Their legacy would be complete but the loss to St. X tainted the perfect season.
The quasi-four class system lasted until 1986 with the two separate Class AAAA champions. Greenup County was the State At-Large champion in 1977 and the Musketeers have a trophy to prove it as well after defeating Henderson County 13-12. They lost the falling week to Trinity, 28-7, in the Kentucky Super Bowl.
The Jefferson County champion won nine of the 12 “Super Bowls” before the system was changed again. Henry Clay defeated DeSales 20-7 in 1981 to become the first time the State At-Large champion won the overall Class AAAA championship.
Ten other teams, besides Ashland and Greenup County, were Class AAAA State At-Large champions or Class AAAA Jefferson County champions, but not the overall champion. They included Henderson County (1976), Tates Creek (1978), Henry Clay (1979), Paducah Tilghman (1980), DeSales (1981) Southern (1982), Owensboro (1983), Ballard (1984), Lafayette (1985) and Boone County (1986).
They didn’t win their last game, but they did win a state or Jefferson County championship – it says so right on the trophy – whether it’s “officially” recognized or not. I realize it’s easier to have one champion for each classification for each year but that’s not how it was explained 45 years ago when Louisville and the rest of Kentucky began playing against each other for football championships.
Maybe, for history’s sake, it’s time for the KHSAA to add those pioneer Class AAAA State At-Large and Jefferson County champions to their own list somewhere in the record book.
As for how Ashland celebrates its own football heritage, let’s start adding 1975 to the list of state champions without apologies, asterisks or explanations. I mean, really guys, who doesn’t like a state champion?