Unmatched legacy: Herb Conley embodies Tomcat spirit

Herb Conley grew up on the mean streets of South Ashland where he watched some of the great Tomcat teams of the 1950s growing up.

 Conley idolized Tomcat stars like Don and Ralph Clere, Jim Graham, Buffalo Bill Hopkins, Paul Reliford, Ace Bowman and Gilly Layman, to name a few. He broke onto the varsity roster as a sophomore in 1956 – at a time when sophomores never played for the varsity – and began a three-year career that was capped off by an undefeated 10-0-1 season in 1958. It would be 62 years before the next undefeated season in 2020.

Conley was an All-State player who signed with Kentucky and finished his career playing for legendary Roy Kidd at Eastern Kentucky. But he is best remembered as a motivational coach supreme, a man who almost willed his players into becoming great players in his image. Get tough was his calling card.

He came to Ashland with Jake Hallum as an assistant coach in 1966 and was part of the 1967 state championship team coaching staff before becoming the Tomcats’ head coach from 1968 to 1976, where he led Ashland to a state runner-up finish in 1973 and the Class 4A state-at-large championship in 1975 with the beloved JAWS team. Conley had a hard-nosed style of his own that translated into 70 Tomcat victories in nine seasons.

Ashland’s teams were respected throughout the state in the 1970s, He was selected as Kentucky’s Coach of the Year in 1975. The Tomcats were tough, just like their coach. They backed down to no one.

Conley retired from coaching after the 1976 season and became an administrator in the Ashland school system. He stepped away from coaching to raise his three sons with wife Janice, who he calls ‘‘my inspiration.’’ He did return to coaching in the 1990s for a short and highly successful stint at Symmes Valley High School outside of Ironton and built that program the same way he did Ashland.

Not surprisingly, he was a get-tough administrator as an assistant principal at the high school and the principal at Verity Middle School. You gave him maximum respect if you were a teacher or a student. It was the kind of discipline necessary to propel everyone to do their best. He had a master’s degree in discipline – ask anyone who ever played or worked with him or maybe was paddled by him. When he scrounged up his nose, the hair stood up on the back of your neck. Trouble was coming.

If Ashland had a Mount Rushmore, you better believe the first person carved out would be Herb Conley.

He played basketball and baseball, but his love was always football. Hard-nosed, grind-you-into-the-dirt football. Conley has been showered with deserved accolades including being an Elks Sports Day honoree, a CP-1 Hall of Famer, a Distinguished Tomcat and having a statue of his likeness placed in Putnam Stadium. He embodies Tomcat football more than any other individual and that’s why he was chosen to represent it at the place he loved to compete. The statute is in the perfect place as he overlooks the playing field in a familiar coaching pose.

Conley has played it, coached it, and admired it. He’s one of the names that keep the tradition going strong. Conley’s impact is felt throughout the generations. He was a fan, player, assistant coach, head coach, school administrator, parent and grandparent of players. Nobody can match that legacy, making him one of the most important figures in Tomcat history.

Beyond all that, he’s a good man, a friend to whoever needs one, an excellent father and a father figure, a loving husband to his late wife and certainly a Tomcat for the ages.

On Sunday he will be honored again before he moves to Lexington because of some ongoing health issues with mobility. Come by between 2 and 4 p.m. in the lobby of the Anderson gym on the Blazer campus and tell him thank you. Bring only your memories, not gifts. It is an opportunity for the people of Ashland who he has impacted – and that is a long, long list – to wish him well on the next journey.

Herb still pumps iron daily, but the wheels aren’t what they used to be. It takes a big man to understand when help is needed. There are few bigger or better than Herb Conley.

He hasn’t seen the last of Ashland. Herb promises to be back on Friday nights this fall to watch his beloved Tomcats.

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