ASHLAND — Leon Hart came to Ashland 10 years ago not only to be vested in a high school football program but a community.
His retirement on Thursday will leave a void in both areas.
Everybody knows Leon Hart the football coach. He guided the Tomcats’ program to 78 victories and nine playoff appearances in 10 seasons. Exciting victories over rivals Russell, Ironton and Johnson Central will be most remembered by the fans.
Two of his quarterbacks, Ian Holbrook and Sam Hunter, rewrote the Tomcat record books.
But he was far more than a football coach to the Ashland community.
A special education teacher in the school system, he made an impact on more students than football players in his 10 years here. Those special ed students absolutely adored Leon Hart. I saw it firsthand a few years ago when they had a birthday party for their then 60-year-old coach at Poage Elementary. They loved him not because he was the Tomcats’ football coach – one boy even asked him if he went to the game last Friday when Ashland beat Ironton – but because he sincerely loved them back.
He taught his football players not just about the game itself but life. They learned a lot from Leon Hart.
Ashland’s players participated in the Salvation Army bell ringing campaign and cleaned up yards during the city’s Repair Affair. They also worked the Special Olympics in the area and came to know their coaching staff not just as coaches but friends.
He leaves a legacy of coaching and service with his retirement.
Not surprisingly, Leon Hart is retiring not because he’s too old to do the job. The 62-year-old coach is retiring so he can spend more time with his aging parents, both 84 and living in Mansfield, Ohio. His father is ill and isn’t getting better. He also has grandchildren in Burlington, N.C. Neither place is exactly a hop, skip and a jump from Ashland.
Leon Hart and his wife, Bonnie, will keep their Ashland home – Bonnie has two more years in the school system before she can retire. But Leon plans on being on the road a lot. He’s going to make time for his parents, children and grandchildren.
He’s coached other people’s children for the past 40 years so it’s now time he took some time for himself.
Dicky Martin, the longtime Tomcat broadcaster, said Leon Hart will be missed in the community.
“He’s not only our coach but he’s a good, good friend of mine,” Martin said. “This community embraced him and he embraced the community. He’s an awfully popular fella. Besides being a good football coach, he’s a heck of man.”
Hart came to Ashland in 2003 with an outstanding coach pedigree. He was part of Eastern Kentucky University’s two Division I-AA national championship teams and brought a wealth of coaching experience to Ashland.
He came looking for a place where he could serve the community and a place where football mattered.
It was the perfect storm for the Tomcats, who have become an area power under his watch.
Hart was always respectful of Ashland’s football tradition. He knew Putnam Stadium’s impact on the community and spoke reverently of former coaches Vic Marsh and Herb Conley. He was almost apologetic for surpassing Conley’s win total.
He is now in the category of former Ashland Tomcat football coach that will be remembered for all the right reasons.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2648.