Friends Who Make You Better

Friday night, Jan. 4, 2013:

Yesterday was a tough day. I got an email in the morning from my good friend, Coach Leon Hart, that he was going to retire as the head football coach at Ashland Blazer. He was letting me know before his team knew and before the news got out because of our friendship. That gesture meant a lot to me, but it was still tough news.

The best part of coaching football is our relationships with other people. The obvious ones are the players, coaches and families in your own program. Often, coaches outside of your program become good friends.

I met Leon in the spring of 1999 when he was the offensive coordinator at Eastern Kentucky University, where he had been part of their national championship coaching staff.

EKU had an outstanding I-formation offense, but the “spread” trend was growing all over the country and nowhere more so than in the state of Kentucky. We were an I team but were beginning to spread the field as well. Harry Lewis was going to be our QB. That spring, our best play was to snap the ball to Harry in the shotgun and sail it over his head. He would run back to pick up the ball, chaos would ensue, everyone would try to tackle Harry, and he would run for a TD. I wanted to see how Leon was running the I but also how he was using screens and incorporating spread concepts.

From Leon, we realized that we could keep a lot of our I concepts in the shotgun. He also helped us with a simple screen that we still run. We call it “30/80 No. 1 Screen” and it has been a basic part of our offense since 1999. It fit us well because it gave us a screen that we could execute. We struggled early on running the screens that UK ran at that time with Coach Hal Mumme. When John Arn came to Mason County as our offensive line coach, he helped us improve, but Leon got us started.

Leon became the head coach at Ashland in 2003. We played two great games with the Tomcats that season – one at Putnam Stadium and the second one in Maysville for the region championship. Our kids played well and we won both games, but they were tough ones.

I remember that night in November when Leon and I met on the field before the region championship game. As usual, I was wound up and a little on edge. He greeted me at the field during warm-ups and said, “I can’t believe you’re going to walk out here wearing a T-shirt as cold as it is.” He made me start laughing, and then when the game started we coached our teams as hard as we could.

A side note: that was the loudest game I ever coached. I was concerned it was going to be even louder at Highlands the next week and it would interfere with our no-huddle offense. Maybe it was the snow, but it wasn’t nearly as loud at Highlands as it had been at home versus Ashland.

When we were moved to a different class from the Tomcats, Leon and I decided we would scrimmage each year. One of the highlights of the season for me became our annual preseason scrimmage with Ashland. From a football perspective, it is a great experience for our team. Ashland is sound fundamentally in all phases of the game. They have a physical and well-coached offensive line and defense. Their schemes on both sides of the ball are also outstanding.

When we scrimmage the Tomcats, our manhood and our toughness are tested, and all of our weaknesses are exposed. The video of that scrimmage will tell us exactly what needs to be fixed and is an instant progress report on every player.

All of those reasons are most important in why we scrimmage Ashland, but for me, the best part of the scrimmage was getting to see Coach Hart. Before a scrimmage, both coaches are going to be a lot more relaxed than before a game. Over the years, my visits with Coach Hart before our scrimmage have been a great time for stories, catching up on our families and getting advice, but primarily being thankful for a very good friend.

Whenever the day comes that I hang up the whistle, I will have more than my share of great memories as a coach’s son, a player, a dad and a coach. Some of the best memories will include the Ashland scrimmages and Coach Hart. It bothers me that those days have come and gone. They were great. It’s also another indication that I am getting old. I’ve lost enough hair and gained enough weight to be more than aware of my age without any more reminders.

It is really tough to think about Leon retiring. It’s not going to be the same and I will miss those visits. But, like so many things in football, coaching and life in general, my appreciation and thankfulness for those people, experiences and relationships will grow. As I look back, I realize these blessings have been much larger and more frequent than I could have hoped for and certainly much, much more than I deserve.

I am counting my blessings, and I would bet that Leon is doing the same.

This column was originally printed by the Maysville Ledger Independent and it was edited by Zack Klemme.