ASHLAND — Leon Hart came to Ashland 10 years ago looking for a home.
He’s retiring as a local coaching great.
Hart, who won 78 games in 10 seasons as head coach of the Ashland Tomcat football program, told his team on Thursday that he was hanging up the whistle because of family issues.
“I knew I wanted to find a place where I could be part of the community and where football was important,” Hart said. “This is the best job I ever had.”
Hart, 62, is leaving the Tomcats as the second-winningest coach in program history. He won nine games in six of 10 seasons and took Ashland to the regional finals twice.
The 2012 season was his 40th in coaching, including a long assistant coaching stint with Eastern Kentucky University where he was on a staff that won a pair of Division I-AA national championships.
Yet his time in Ashland was the best of his coaching life, Hart said.
“With all that success, this is the best job I ever had,” he said. “I love this community. Bill Tom Ross got it right: I’ll always be a Tomcat.”
Ross, a former assistant coach at Ashland, famously said once you’ve been with the Tomcats you’re a Tomcat for life.
Hart came to Ashland in 2003 with impressive coaching credentials. It was so good that many doubted if he would be around for long.
“When I first got here, everybody thought I was leaving within a year,” he said.
Instead, he stayed for 10 seasons and it may have been longer if not for family issues. Hart’s parents, both 84, live in Mansfield, Ohio. His father is ill and he wants to spend as much quality time with him and his mother as possible.
“My father’s sick and I can’t fix what’s wrong with my dad,” he said. “My mother needs my help and my support. You can’t put a price tag on it.”
Hart also has sons and grandchildren in Burlington, N.C., that he wants to visit more often. Coaching high school football doesn’t allow for much down time.
Hart’s retirement not only from coaching but also teaching will allow him to have the time to spend with family in Ohio and North Carolina. The decision has been weighing on his mind for awhile.
“I almost went a year ago,” he said. “I almost went eight years ago.”
After his second season at Ashland, his wife, Mattie, unexpectedly died and Hart wasn’t sure what he was going to do. However, the Ashland community showed compassion and that they cared so he decided to stay.
“It was amazing to me at the time the way the community put their arms around me,” he said. “I’d been here two years. Her family was saying ‘What are you to these people?’ I said, ‘I’m their football coach.’’’
Hart said when he was on the recruiting trail for EKU he always looked for a place like Ashland where he could settle down into a community and coach on Friday nights.
“Friday nights in Putnam Stadium are unbelievably special for anybody who gets the chance to be there,” Hart said.
Ashland’s teams soared under Hart. Ian Holbrook and Sam Holbrook became record-setting quarterbacks in the high-octane offenses. The Tomcats put up points in record fashion and were fundamentally sound in all facets.
“A lot of guys made me look like a good football coach for the past 10 years,” Hart said.
His calling card was an explosive and sometimes unpredictable offense. Hart was good at using what the talent dictated. He had teams that ran unbalanced lines in a jumbo set, with extra tackles lined up as tight ends.
“He was an offensive genius,” said Tomcat radio man David Payne. “The kids loved him. The younger players loved him. He made changes in JFL that served the program well.”
Hart had some memorable victories over Ironton and Johnson Central, two of the Tomcats’ biggest rivals during his tenure. He also had some torturous losses to those teams.
“He always gave all the credit to the kids and, when they lost, he took the blame,” said Tomcat radio voice Dicky Martin. “He still talked about Vic (Marsh) and Herb (Conley) so much and what they meant and still do mean to the program. Not only did he (Hart) carry on the Tomcat tradition but he built on it. We have 80 kids out for football.”
Ashland made the playoffs in nine of 10 seasons with the 2-8 mark in 2007 his only losing record. Hart was a part of only four losing seasons in 40 years of coaching.
Hart and his wife, Bonnie, who has two years until her retirement, plan on staying in Ashland at least that long. It has become home to him.
“At no point do you think this is going to be the end,” he said. “I haven’t been away from football since 1963 when I started playing in middle school. I’ve had football every fall since.”
Hart said the Tomcats’ program is in good shape for the future and he endorsed assistant coach Tony Love as the man who should take the reins.
“They know. If they don’t hire Tony Love they’re making a mistake,” Hart said. “I mean that from the bottom of my heart. Tony turned down two jobs last summer to stay with us.”
Love has been Hart’s defensive coordinator since he started at Ashland.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2648.
Leon Hart year-by-year
Reg. season Playoffs
YEAR W L W L
2003 8 5 2 1
2004 9 4 2 1
2005 9 3 1 1
2006 9 3 1 1
2007 2 8 0 0
2008 7 5 1 1
2009 9 2 0 1
2010 7 4 0 1
2011 9 3 1 1
2012 9 3 1 1
TOTAL 78 40 9 9