The man they called ‘Brother’ was one of Ashland’s favorite sons

Earl “Brother” Adkins, one of only two players in Ashland Tomcat history to earn All-American basketball recognition, died Monday.

And basketball wasn’t his only sport. He also played football, where he was an All-State honorable mention running back, and he was elite in track. More than all that, he was an elite educator and a better person, a gentleman’s gentleman who stay connected to Ashland through regular conversations with high school teammates Jerry Henderson, Ralph Clere and Buffalo Hopkins.

Just how good of an athlete was the man everybody called “Brother?” Well, he was offered scholarships by both Adolph Rupp and Paul “Bear” Bryant. Need any more evidence?

He chose basketball because he loved the sport and he loved the Wildcats, listening to games when he was a boy and idolizing Ralph Beard. Wearing the blue-and-white was a lifelong dream come true although that dream was sometimes a source of great frustration, too.

Adkins’ career at Kentucky was star-crossed to say the least. Brother married his high school sweetheart, Beverly Newton, out of high school and that didn’t sit well with Rupp, who held it against him during his time with the Cats. Rupp assistant Harry Lancaster had told Adkins that he would be fine if he were to be married. But he was wrong. Rupp wanted his players to put basketball above everything else in their life at the time and Adkins couldn’t do it. Earl and Beverly lived on a married scholarship of $118 a month, which was supposed to take care of housing and food. Even in the mid-1950s, that was a stretch. He survived much of the time on one meal a day, he said in the Cats Pause interview.

“I couldn’t put basketball first,” he said in a 1986 interview in the Cats Pause. “And I understood how Coach Rupp felt about that. But I’d still do it in the same way. I could play college basketball and still be married.”

As a sophomore, the Cats were preparing to play Marquette in the NCAA tournament and Rupp told Brother he was going to start. But during the scrimmage he made two bad passes and Rupp yanked him out. Not only did he not start Adkins, he played only two minutes, shattering his confidence. He sat out the next season before returning for a redshirt junior season and senior season.

Eventually, though, Adkins was too good to not get in the game. He did become the first person off the bench for “The Fiddlin’ Five” and Rupp called him the best sixth man in the nation after the 1958 championship season. Adkins’ shooting touch from long range never left and he had some huge games coming off the bench including 26 points against Vanderbilt and had 14 points in the second half of a win over Georgia in Atlanta. He scored 199 points in three years on the UK varsity and averaged 5.3 points per game as a senior.

The 1958 NCAA tournament had only 24 teams and UK played twice at Memorial Coliseum and twice in the Final Four at Freedom Hall. Kentucky defeated Seattle-led Elgin Baylor, 84-72, in the championship.

Adkins’ path to UK was colored in Tomcat maroon-and-white, starring on a celebrated team of eventual Division I players in 1953 on one of arguably Ashland’s greatest teams. World famous marketing guru Jim Host was a manager on that team and still says they are the best Ashland ever produced – even better than the state champion 1961 Tomcats.

In 1953, Brother was selected as captain of the Courier Journal’s All-State Basketball team, voted All-American and given the title of Kentucky’s “Mr. Basketball.” Brother was MVP of the 1953 North-South All-Star Game and received the “Chuck Taylor” award as the top basketball player in the nation. 

He credited much of his development to fiery Tomcat basketball coach George Conley, who drove his players in search of perfection. Bob Sang was one of his most mentioned mentors for Adkins in football.

But basketball was his game. He loved it, dreamed of playing for UK and one day making it to the NBA. He had a shooter’s eye with the patented two-handed set shot from his early days at Oakview Elementary and Putnam Junior High, to burning the nets at Ashland High School’s gymnasium on Lexington Avenue and the Ashland Armory where college basketball coaches from across the country got out their road maps to find this sharpshooter in Ashland, Kentucky.

His two-handed set shot swished through the nets on a regular basis as he averaged 20.9 points per game on the 1953 Tomcats that finished 28-4 and suffered a heartbreaking 46-44 loss to Paducah Tilghman in the opening round of the Sweet Sixteen. Ashland entered the tournament a clear favorite and ranked No. 1 in the state.

Adkins, who scored 1,386 points in his Tomcat career, was reminded at a reunion in the 1980s that he told a classmate before the season that he was going to be the No. 1 player in the nation and then he lived up to his own hype.

“Brother” Adkins joined Ashland greats on the Elks Wall of Fame in 1996 on Sports Day. He also is a member of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame.

After graduating and earning his master’s at Western Kentucky University, Brother spent 34 years in Kentucky’s education system coaching basketball at South Hopkins (also named the Tomcats), Union County and Harrodsburg high schools, principal at Cairo and Morganfield elementary schools and retiring from the Union County Board of Education, where he served as assistant superintendent.

By the way, the only other Tomcat basketball player to earn All-American honors was Larry Conley, who led Ashland to the 1961 championship and the 1962 state runner-up trophies. Conley also went to UK and became part of the famed “Rupp’s Runts.”

If you’re looking for a Tomcat basketball Mt. Rushmore, Adkins and Conley would be a good place to start.

‘The right time’: Gibson to retire from MLB umpiring

Ashland native Greg Gibson is closing the book on a 24-year Major League Baseball umpiring career with no regrets.

His career is stuffed full of highlights, including being on the umpire crew for the 2011 World Series, calling balls and strikes for Randy Johnson’s perfect game in 2004 and then on the bases when Clayton Kershaw fired a no-hitter 10 years later in 2014.

Those are big baseball moments for No. 53, who recently turned 54 years old. No other umpire has ever worn No. 53 except for Gibby, as they called him.

Gibson said he was thankful for everything baseball gave him but it was time to walk away from a job that has given him life experiences he could never had imagined. “If God called me home right now, I’ve done a lot of living,” he said.

His career included being part of 11 Division Series umpiring teams, five League Championship Series and even a Game 7 as part of the 2011 World Series that the St. Louis Cardinals won against the Texas Rangers and the 2008 All-Star Game.

Texas Rangers’ Adrian Beltre, center, watches his solo home run in front of Tampa Bay Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach and umpire Greg Gibson during the fourth inning of Game 4 of baseball’s American League division series, Tuesday Oct. 4, 2011, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

He also had one that nobody could match: “I had home plate on Sunday night on ESPN and (Albert) Pujols pitched. He’s part of the 700 home run club and I worked the plate for Albert Pujols pitching.”

It was his Pujols’ one and only mound appearance in a Hall of Fame career.

Gibson was a highly respected umpire who is walking away on his own terms and at the right time. He’s looking forward to more family time with wife Michelle and his three sons: Kyle, Cameron and Carter. He will also spend more time with his dad and mom, Acy and Joyce Gibson,

“My family put up with me being gone,” he said. “Michelle practically raised the boys by herself.” She will be retiring from the Boyd County school system next year, he said.

Don’t expect Gibson to be sitting in a rocking chair and remembering the good ‘ol days. He will be more involved than ever with an insurance coming that has been soaring since it started in 2019. He loves the business and will be putting that same effort into it that made him one of MLB’s elite umpires over the past 24 years.

Gibson said he never wanted to stay too long in umpiring and “be that guy where players are rolling their eyes when they see you coming out. I’ve seen that happen (to other umpires). I was getting to the point where it wasn’t fun.”

Homeplate umpire Greg Gibson signals a home run for Tampa Bay Rays’ Matt Joyce after a review during the first inning of a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers in Detroit, Sunday, July 6, 2014. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

“When I got into umpiring, it was my passion. I always said I wanted to leave when they still thought I was good. Not great, but good,” he said.

Gibson said he also didn’t want to be the veteran who stood in the way of a young umpire ready to make the move to MLB. “A young man on my crew, Nick Marley, came up from Triple-A. Hopefully they hire him in the offseason. I remember being that young guy. It’s my time to get out of the way. It was the right time.”

Umpiring has taken a physical toll as well. He’s had multiple concussions from foul tips smacking off his facemask and head. Gibson said he thought his career was in jeopardy when he had four concussions in 2009. Three of the head blows came within 12 days, he said.

He missed the 2020 season after suffering an offseason knee injury and has missed games this season with long-term COVID issues.

“It’s been a great run,” said Gibson, who started his professional umpiring career in the Appalachian League in 1991 when he was 22 years old. He broke into MLB in 1999 and his first game was Cleveland-St. Louis in 1997. “I’m not sure my feet touched the ground when I went out,” he said. It took two more years before he became fulltime in the major leagues, following a tradition in the Ashland area that included Charlie Reliford and Terry Craft. Sam Holbrook, who is from Morehead, is still an active umpire. Reliford works with MLB umpires and is considered one of the best rules experts in the game.

When Gibson became an MLB umpire, every team didn’t have its own television network and every game wasn’t televised. Baseball fans could only catch the Braves (WTBS) and Cubs (WGN) on a regular basis. The radio was the biggest means of communication.

But year by year, technology soared and now every team is televised every game and national networks put it under a bigger spotlight. That meant more attention – and pressure – on umpires to never miss a call. Their accuracy rate remains remarkable on balls and strikes and safe or out.

“I told Michelle my goal this year was to not become a meme,” he said. “Who would have ever thought that?”

The physical and mental fatigue of being a MLB umpire can take a toll, he said, which is another reason he’s glad to walk away from it even though he could have experienced it longer.

A man of faith, Gibson said he understands know how God was working about eight years ago preparing him for a career change.

“I was disappointed with some things that were happening with my (baseball) career. A few things happened that I didn’t understand and didn’t know why. I was mad. But God was opening up a door for me with insurance. I am so thankful. Even when I was mad, I didn’t even realize it until 2021. God was preparing me then for now. It’s what makes me more happy than anything. I’d rather be in God’s will than work four or five World Series. At the end of the day, God only gives you one shot. If you’re going to say Jesus take the wheel, mean it.”

Gibson said he has worked with a lot of umpires who have passed away. “They don’t teach a man how to retire,” he said.

Even though he’s been on the field for some of baseball’s biggest moments, the most memorable moments were when he looked up in the stands and saw family – his mom and dad, his wife and sons. “That’s what was always the most important moment,” he said.

He called behind the plate on Mother’s Day in Cincinnati this season and before the game had his family on the field with him for some photographs. Gibson, who hadn’t contemplated retirement, said he didn’t know why but something told him to do it.

“For whatever reason, I got them all downstairs and went out on the field and take a ton of pictures,” he said. “Now I know why.”

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.”

Beating the odds: Sullivan shines brightly in athletic, professional careers

David Sullivan defied the odds to become one of the best receivers in University of Virginia history and a professional football receiver for the Cleveland Browns.

His career – both athletically and professionally – is so bright that sunglasses should be required.

Sullivan succeeded in both through faith, dedication, believing in himself and believing in teammates. Those are the hallmarks of success for Sullivan, whose accolades on and off the playing fields is a success story worth hearing and make him one of the greatest overachieving athletes in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, high school football history.

He was a 6-foot, 165-pound senior at Steelton High School when his high school coached moved him from running back to flanker. He quickly adapted to the position, learning to run pass routes with proficiency. Sullivan’s soft hands and speed made him an instant success and paved the way for an improbable career.

Dave Sullivan was a record-smashing receiver at the University of Virginia. That helped him play two years in the NFL with the Browns.

In his first season as a prep receiver, Sullivan caught 35 passes for 672 yards and five touchdowns during Steelton’s 1967 season. A star was born and he caught the eye of the University of Virginia, which overlooked his frame and looked into the heart. They signed him to a college scholarship, believing they had found a diamond in the rough.

He became a rare find as Sullivan’s intellect and determination to succeed would take him all the way to the National Football League. He proved himself invaluable on the college level, becoming an AP honorable mention All-American and first-team Atlantic Coast Conference wide receiver his senior year at the University of Virginia. Some have called him one of the greatest players in school history. The first-team All-America wide receiver in Sullivan’s senior year was Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, proving he was in good company. He may have moved further up the All-America ladder had the Cavaliers produced a winning season.

Sullivan led the ACC in catches and receiving yards, becoming the only Virginia all-league player that season. He had 51 catches for 662 yards and seven touchdowns – all top marks for Virginia receivers in a single season – despite a revolving door of quarterbacks at Virginia. He was often the player that opposing defenses tried to take away but his uncanny route running ability and good hands overcame many double-teams.

For his career, Sullivan amassed 120 catches for 1,568 yards and 12 touchdowns, the first two setting Virginia records. He played in the Blue-Gray and Senior All-Star Games and began to draw the attention of professional scouts.

Another characteristic for Sullivan was his leadership abilities. Even though he was one of the best receivers in college football in 1972, teammates saw the same man they knew when he entered college. He was humble and generous – traits that would serve him well later in the business world. Sullivan was a winner who he did it within the team concept. He took that same attitude into his professional life after football was no longer an option.

When Sullivan was entering his senior year of high school, he wasn’t on anybody’s recruiting radar. But once he was moved to flanker and worked relentlessly to learn the position, not even his small frame or age was a deterrent. When he signed out of high school to Virginia, he was only 16 years old. He worked hard in the classroom too, ranking 22nd in a class of 152 in 1968.

By the time he was a senior at Virginia, he was 6-foot and 185 pounds – a far cry from the 155-pound receiver that went mostly unwanted by most major colleges. His size and speed – he ran 40 yards in 4.7 seconds – was under the radar by most pro scouts. But few in college ran routes better or had better hands than Sullivan, giving him a chance to become an NFL player.

Sullivan has been defying odds since he was a slender 115-pound sophomore trying to make the varsity at Steel-High. Two years later college after college passed on him because he was too small for their programs. All except for Virginia, which found a playmaking receiver.

Cleveland took Sullivan late in the 1973 NFL Draft, taking him in the 15th round. That didn’t deter him from believing he could make the team and contribute or even start. He played in seven NFL games, starting three and would have had a much longer career if not for a third knee surgery that proved to be too much. He caught five passes for 92 yards in his two-year career with the Browns.

In his finest game with the Browns, he caught two passes for 52 yards from Brian Sipe in a 26-16 loss to the Steelers. Sullivan was being defended by Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount in that game at Cleveland Stadium in 1974.

His degree from Virginia was in educational psychology, but he quickly learned the business side of the death care business. He liked the competitiveness aspect along with the traits of strong character, integrity and compassion with the customer.

He joined Gibraltar Mausoleum Corp. in Indianapolis in 1977 and rose to become the executive vice president of sales and marketing. He stayed with that company for 18 years. Sullivan has 47 years in the sales and marketing end of the business and formed Saber Management in January 1998.

He was named the 2002 Ernst & Young Heartland, Indiana, Entrepreneur of the Year and led Saber Management to even bigger successes over the next 15 years before selling to Park Lawn Corp. in 2017 for $65 million.

Sullivan is also recognized for his philanthropy. He has been a consistent and generous donor to the nonprofit Amy For Africa, a Christian organization in Uganda, since 2014 – not only through his businesses but personally with wife, Sara. He has also been involved in many other charities promoting needs for children and others in need through both his business contributions and personally.