Coach Leahy: A Large Part of the Tradition
Eighteen-year-old Paul Francis Leahy of Rock Island, Illinois, heard about the Mayfield-Paducah Tilghman grid grudge match when he migrated south to Murray State University on a football scholarship.
“My teammates from Mayfield talked about it,” said Leahy, who helped anchor Murray’s defense as a 6-3, 240-pound tackle. “So did our other players from Kentucky. It was unbelievable.” The Land of Lincoln ex-patriot was later hired as a Mayfield assistant coach in 1971 and notched his first Tilghman game from the sidelines.
“The first Tilghman games I attended as a new coach just astounded me,” said Leahy. “People would pour into the stadium. Our kids got to play in front of ten or twelve thousand people. Most high school football players never have the opportunity to perform in front of a crowd that size.”
Leahy, who won a Kentucky class AA championship his first year as head coach, conceded that the “Big Red-Big-Blue” rivalry means nothing to either team’s quest for another state title. But it’s anything but by-the-numbers when the Cardinals and the Blue Tornado clash. It’s a football feud.
“I soon realized that people felt that the integrity of the whole community was on the line every year in the Tilghman game,” he said. “There’s an intensity in this contest that goes back more than eighty years. Some people would rather beat Tilghman than win a state championship.”
The Mayfield-Paducah game has grabbed more than local newspaper headlines. The 1987 battle for town bragging rights merited a cover story in the Louisville Courier-Journal magazine. A cable TV sports network broadcasted that game nationally as a Friday night high school football feature. “It’s the kind of traditional rivalry that really captures the imaginations of fans and even of people who don’t know that much about the game,” Leahy said.
For years, Mayfield squared off against Tilghman as a season-ender on Thanksgiving afternoon. The game was moved up in the schedule after Kentucky reorganized prep football into classes based on school size. Larger, Tilghman ended up in Class AAA. Mayfield was in Class AA for years and finally wound up in class A.
“It’s hard to explain exactly why the Tilghman game is still so important to the kids and to the community,” Leahy said, “I think part of the appeal to the players is that innate love of approval we all have. Who wouldn’t enjoy having a whole town cheering his efforts?”
Mayfield no longer has an official football homecoming. But Leahy said that the Tilghman game is the closest thing to it. “Even people who don’t live in Mayfield any more often come home for the game. We’ve had them send telegrams to the Tilghman pep rally apologizing for missing the game.”
Tilghman games are not found in the little-noted but rather in the long-remembered category of high school recollections. “Fans, a lot of them former players themselves, can tell you plays and scores from games decades ago; and those memories make our players want to win even more,” Leahy said. These games have become the traditions of Mayfield High School football in their own special way to hundreds of fans, players, and alumni. Leahy added, “We remind our players that every Tilghman game gets ‘replayed’ over and over again in conversation. They want their performance on game night to be good because they’ll be hearing about the way they played until their dying day. A Tilghman game is never over.”
For 22 years, Leahy was an assistant to Coach Jack Morris, whose Redbird teams notched four state championships. Off the field, Leahy taught geography. “It didn’t take me long to realize that I had landed in a rare and unique teaching and coaching situation.”
“Football is important to me, but academics are even more so,” Leahy said. He stresses that, “Even though I spend hours coaching, I spend even more time teaching,” Leahy said. Leahy seems to combine the best of both professions with ease. He attributes this type of success to every member of this community. “We’ve always had outstanding students, a terrific administration, community support, and parents with high expectations for academic success. When teaching is enjoyable and you’re winning ballgames, you’d have to be a nut to pack up and leave.”
Leahy, who became head coach after Jack Morris retired in 1993, admits he’s received his share of head coaching job offers elsewhere. Many have been at larger schools with winning football traditions like Mayfield’s. “It would take one heck of an opportunity to lure a guy away from a place he’s lucky to be,” Leahy said. “Most head coaching jobs would be a step down from an assistant coach at Mayfield. This is a team on which kids consistently play above their ability levels. I think those performances over the years come from tradition.”
Tradition, he added, means Mayfield football is larger than any one person, even a coach with a state championship ring on his finger. “Even bigger than me,” laughed Leahy, who claims he doesn’t need padding when he plays Santa Claus at Christmas. Leahy feels that the tradition of excellence, both on and off the field, will always be passed on. “If I keeled over tomorrow, the coaching staff would carry right on. With Louis McDonald and Joe David Smith, I was part of a very good assistant staff; and I’ve got an outstanding group working now. They’re dedicated and knowledgeable, and they have a strong sense of the MHS tradition.”
Campus support for Cardinal football ranges beyond the coaches’ offices, Leahy said. “Look around the school at the students and faculty. Our kids are great, and our faculty members are unbelievably supportive and enthusiastic. For the Tilghman game, they’re wearing red and black and cheering, even the ones who don’t know a football froma pineapple.”