ASHLAND Herb Conley gave Bill Tom Ross his start in coaching in 1970.
Ross was a student teacher at Paul G. Blazer High School and asked Conley, an intimidating figure, if he could help coach.
“He always said I scared him to death,” Conley said. “I gave him some duties but I was kind of leery because he was a Catlettsburg boy. I didn’t give him a lot of assignments.”
But day by day and game by game, Conley started trusting this 24-year-old young man.
“He made a believer of me when we played Boyd County,” Conley said. “He was always coming up with something.”
Ross and Brenda, his sweetheart of a wife, made their own “scouting report” about the Tomcats from Boyd County.
They left it in the locker room so it could be found.
“I read it to the team,” Conley said. “It said things about all the coaches and all the players. It really made us mad and inspired us. We were big underdogs and played them close.”
Boyd County defeated Ashland, 13-0.
After the game, Ross sheepishly went to Conley and told him “they were all lies, that he and Brenda made it all up.”
Conley said he didn’t get mad at all.
“I said, ‘Well, it almost worked! We just about beat them and had no business doing it.’”
Stories like that one and many others flowed free on Monday, the day after Ross died in Community Hospice.
Ross became a full-time coach in 1971 and a full-time friend of Herb Conley’s as well. From 1971 to 1976, Conley and Ross led the Tomcats to a 56-16 record, a state runner-up finish in 1972, a state at-large championship in 1975 and the state semifinals in 1976.
The Tomcats were in the state’s largest classification during those seasons.
Ashland fell to St. Xavier in the Class 4A state championship game in 1975 with the team nicknamed JAWS.
Guess who had a hand in that happening?
Conley was telling the coaches about his recent trip to Myrtle Beach and how his boys were scaring his wife, Janice, because they were going too far out into the ocean.
They took them to watch JAWS the movie that night and the boys stayed away from the water completely.
“Bill Tom said, ‘Why don’t we call our defense JAWS?’” Conley said.
The other assistant coaches agreed with Ross but Conley was more apprehensive.
“I said, ‘We’ll think about it. I’m not so sure that’s a good idea,’” Conley said.
Ross had made sure the players knew of his plan and they wanted the nickname. Conley told them they had to earn it.
Tough-as-nails linebacker Chuck Anderson had the breath knocked out of him during the opening game. The coaches were pulling him up by the belt to get his breath back.
“He couldn’t even breathe,” Conley said. “He gasped out, ‘Are we going to get to be called JAWS?’ I thought if a guy that tough wants us to be JAWS, we’ll do it.”
Ross made sure the band director taught the JAWS theme to the band members and he had the cheerleaders get the big JAWS letters.
“He was always coming up with something,” Conley said.
Ross was 24-7 football. He once rode with Conley to an Eastern Kentucky University game and began talking to him about “the passing tree” around Morehead.
They were 20 miles from Knoxville before realizing they had driven long past Richmond.
When Conley took a job at Symmes Valley, he got a crash course on defense from Ross. It had been 20 years since Conley had coached.
“We went into a classroom at Verity and he explained the 50 defense and how to coach it,” Conley said. “I used it the first year and then went back to the 4-4, which I was more used to coaching.”
Ross and Conley remained close friends over the years. It was hard for Conley to watch his friend slowly dying the last two weeks at Community Hospice.
“That wasn’t Bill Tom and wasn’t how he wanted to live,” Conley said. “He and Janice (Herb’s wife) are in paradise together today.”
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2648. Follow @DIndependent on Twitter.