Remembering a Tomcat great from famed 1961 champions

Harold Sergent, one of Ashland’s greatest athletes and a shrewd businessman who made and lost fortunes during his lifetime, died alone in a nursing home in Florida a little more than a year ago.

A tremendous basketball and baseball player at Ashland High School and Morehead College, Sergent is best known in Ashland as the starting point guard for the 1961 state champion Tomcats. Some still consider that team the greatest champion in Kentucky high school basketball history. He later was a record-setting player at Morehead where his number 50 was retied and hangs in the rafters.

Sergent was a reclusive person in his later years and especially after the death of his wife, Linda, in 2009. They were married 46 years.

Good friend and former business partner John Stafford learned of Sergent’s death in July after doing some research through a friend who is an attorney. They learned he died July 26, 2021, in a nursing home near West Palm.

“They had no history who he was,” Stafford said. “Here’s a guy who was an All-American, point guard of the 61 Tomcats, a Phillips 66er and someone who played in the Pan Am Games. So many achievements he had, and nobody knew about them.”

Stafford became concerned because Sergent had spent many weeks with him at Stafford’s home in Ormond Beach in Florida. Sergent lived in West Palm, which was a close drive. The two of them were former business partners who worked together for years.

“I lost touch with him about two years ago,” Stafford said. “All of the sudden he just dropped off the map. I kept calling the phone numbers I had for him but none of them worked. He had gotten sick. Harold was a real introverted person. The last time he stayed with me, he couldn’t go upstairs to the bedrooms because of his legs that were in such bad shape. He went back home and that was the last time I saw him.”

Stafford later learned Sergent had been living in a one-bedroom apartment and couldn’t drive.

“We did business together, made lot of money together,” Stafford said. “He had some rough edges, but I gave it right back to him. You either loved him or hated him. They cremated him but I don’t know what they did with his ashes. It’s a shame for him to die like a pauper.”

Sergent and his wife lived a lavish lifestyle that included multiple mansions and a beautiful horse farm in Lexington. His life was most certainly lived in the fast lane. Stafford said he was a dynamo in the board rooms.

After helping Ashland win the 1961 state championship on a team loaded with talent, Sergent went on to star at Morehead from 1962-65, scoring 1,469 career points that included 363 free throws. He was a first-team Ohio Valley Conference selection three times and finished his career with a 23.2 scoring average. He was inducted into the MSU Athletic Hall of Fame in 1985.

Sergent had 25 scholarship offers and he and teammate Gene Smith initially signed with Virginia Tech but backed out after a coaching change. They visited Florida State’s campus where Hugh Durham was the freshmen coach. Florida State had just changed from an all-female school so the ratio of male-to-female was still greatly tilted to the feminine gender, which suited Sergent and Smith (who ended up at Cincinnati). But neither went there.

Kentucky wasn’t one of Sergent’s offers as Adolph Rupp gave his last backcourt scholarship to Owensboro’s Randy Embry, a decision he may have regretted after Sergent’s sterling career at Morehead.

On the freshmen team at Morehead, he averaged 37 points per game, setting the stage for a big varsity career. Freshmen were not allowed to play on the college varsity level then.

Sergent scored 52 points (without the aid of the 3-point shot) against Middle Tennessee in the 1964-65 season and was named OVC Player of the Year in 1963, the first year that award was given. His No. 50 jersey was retired and hangs in Johnson Arena.

He also played baseball for the Eagles, becoming a first-team OVC selection when he won 10 games in one season.

Sergent was an outstanding baseball player for the Tomcats as well, growing up in Ashland when organized baseball was starting. He was a fire-balling pitcher who was hard to hit. But basketball was his calling card. While he averaged 15.2 points per game for the Tomcats in 1961, it could have been much more. Sergent and Larry Conley were considered the most talented players on that team. Conley was a junior and he led the Tomcats back to the state tournament as a senior where they fell in the finals to Louisville St. Xavier, 62-58.

Sergent and Conley’s point totals were also held down in 61 because coach Bob Wright often didn’t play them for more than a half in many of the lopsided victories. But they compiled a 36-1 season and dominated everyone in the Sweet 16 with four consecutive double-figure wins, including 69-51 over Lexington Dunbar in the finals. More than 60 years later, that team is mentioned among the all-time best because of their teamwork.

A book by the same name, Teamwork, commemorated the 1961 Tomcats on their 50th anniversary in 2011. That’s where I first encountered Sergent, who was friendly and open about the team, sharing many interesting anecdotes including how he was almost cut by Wright as a junior.

Sergent or Conley could have averaged 30 or more per game in 1961 but the beauty of that team was how well they worked together. Nobody cared who got the points, if the Tomcats got the win. Sergent was a natural athlete who was good at whatever he played.

“Anything he did athletically, he did well,” said Stafford, an athlete himself who was co-captain and an end for the 1962 Tomcats’ football team. “They’d play in the old YMCA on 13th Street on that small basketball floor where there was not room to walk around the court. They had a track over the top. All these great players would meet and play virtually every day together. They knew each other so well. People would line up on that railing to watch them play.”

Stafford said he admired Sergent and wanted to get to know him better, which he did.

Being about 5-foot-11 and wearing glasses, some may have questioned his athletic ability at first glance even but you did so at your own peril. Even later in life, Stafford said he could beat anybody in a game of P-I-G and he’d shoot in the low 80s in golf after not playing for a year. “His hand-to-eye coordination was amazing,” Stafford said.

After finishing at Morehead, he played for the Phillips 66ers in the Amateur Athletic Union, which at the time was the premier amateur basketball league in the United States. Playing in the AAU allowed players to still compete in international competitions like the Olympic Games and Pan Am Games because professional athletes were not allowed to participate. Sergent was twice named an AAU All-American in 1966 and 1967.

Sergent was inducted into the Kentucky Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017 but didn’t make it to the ceremony. The 61 Tomcats are the last boys’ state championship team from the 16th Region. Ashland has since been runner-up twice, in 1962 and 1996, and Rowan County was runner-up in 2011.

Sergent was the second starter from the 1961 Tomcats to pass away. Bob Hilton, who scored 24 in the state championship game, died in 1980. Conley, Steve Cram and Smith were the other starters. Dale Sexton and Jerry Daniels were the top subs, making up what was called “The Solid Seven.”

4 thoughts on “Remembering a Tomcat great from famed 1961 champions

  1. Hey, Mark,
    Thoroughly enjoy your articles/work. Played against Sarge at Southside pool.
    Please check your spelling in this article- I think it should be “anecdote” not “antidote”. Sorry, cannot resist correcting English – thanks to Ms Steil, my eighth grade English teacher at Putnam🤔😂😂😂

    Like

  2. In ’64 ,prior to us going to the State Baseball Tournament, Harold (Sarge-ss) and HFDixon-cf got kicked off the Team for missing curfew. Both were All Region players . Two of our best players,our #2+#3 hitters. That made me move from my normal 2nd base to ss +Ron Mayo filled in at 2nd. Coach Ted Boehm gave up the State Championship for curfew rules. We got beat in semi-finals by the Champs. Great job, Mark!!!!!! BOTH GREAT PLAYERS—-Gary Wright

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