MOUNT VERNON -- It was darned near marketing genius.
Early in what became his two-decades-plus tenure as head football coach at Rockcastle County High, Tom Larkey had an inspiration. At his initiative, a local rock quarry was scoured for a formidable specimen of rock.
Larkey had the rock -- "It had to weigh 4 tons," he says now -- hauled to the local high school football field. It was placed where decades of Rockcastle County football players would have to pass it every single day on the way to the field of contention.
Emblazoned in black on this impressive piece of rock are four short words: The Rock Is Hard.
Rarely in Kentucky sports history has a symbol come to so fittingly represent a sports program.
In a most unlikely rise for a high school in a small, rural county to the front tier of Kentucky high school football programs, The Rock was hard.
Hard to play.
With a heavy emphasis on weight training, Larkey presided over football teams that became known statewide for sheer physical strength and a punishing brand of play. Watch Rockcastle play, and the phrase "smash-mouth football" resonated.
Hard to beat.
Even with last year's relatively subpar 6-6 season, Rockcastle County has gone a combined 86-22 in the 2000s with two appearances in the Class 3A state finals.
Hard to ignore.
Pre-Larkey, Rockcastle would have described itself as a basketball county. Now, "football is pretty much what we do," says Dustin Bishop, the school's junior-to-be starting quarterback. "We have cannons that go off when we score touchdowns. There's fireworks on extra points. Football is big here."
Which is why The Rock is a little anxious these days.
In a move few saw coming, the 58-year-old Larkey left this winter. The man who gave Rockcastle County such pride through football during his 23 years on the sidelines is now the head coach at the new consolidated Harlan County Central High.
People in Rockcastle are now wondering how hard it will be for The Rock to stay strong.
For decades, high school football in Kentucky was a "town" thing.
Outside the cities of Louisville and Lexington, the commonwealth's football hotbeds were in the towns: Paducah, Mayfield, Owensboro, Bardstown, Danville, Somerset, Corbin, Fort Thomas, Pikeville, Ashland.
Problem was, that left most of the rural consolidated "county high schools" in our state as virtual football wastelands.
When coaches such as Dudley Hilton (Bell County), Mike Holcomb (Breathitt County) and Chuck Smith (Boyle County) showed that championship-caliber programs could be built in rural "county" schools without significant prior pigskin histories, it marked a significant upgrade in the overall health of high school football in Kentucky. What Larkey did at Rockcastle County was of that same ilk.
"He built this program from the ground," says Scott Parkey, a former Rockcastle County quarterback who will succeed Larkey as the school's head coach. "He started the youth program. Got the weight program really going. He's a legend to me."
Larkey says he realized quickly that a coach in Rockcastle County (population 16,801) was not going to have the pool of athletes to compete at a state level if you were going to play a style that depends on speed.
"You can build a quality high school football player if you have kids who are committed and willing to work on the weights," Larkey says. "You may not be able to create a bunch of Division I college prospects, but you can build a good high school football player in the weight room."
That philosophy produced 212 wins (vs. 67 losses) in Larkey's 23 years as Rockcastle head coach. There may not have been "a bunch" of Division I prospects created, but two Rockcastle linemen, Jason Leger and Brad Durham, earned scholarships to the University of Kentucky.
In 2001 and '02, Larkey's Rockets advanced to the Class 3A state championship game, only to fall both times to Boyle County during the stretch when the Rebels won five straight state titles.
"It seemed like when we had our really good teams, we'd run into somebody that had just a little better team," Larkey says.
Last year's 6-6 season was not what folks in Rockcastle had come to expect. Still, no one had any inkling when it ended with a second-round loss in the 4A playoffs that it would be Larkey's final season at Rockcastle.
Over the winter, Larkey was contacted by school officials in Harlan County. The new high school scheduled to open in that county next school year will represent a consolidation of Cawood, Evarts and Cumberland.
Larkey, who is retired as a teacher, had been working as a substitute in recent years while also coaching. He says Harlan County made him county-wide athletics director as well as head football coach at the new school.
"Financially, it was an awful good deal," Larkey says without going into the specifics. "I have so many good memories at Rockcastle, but sometimes in life, you just need to move on and change and try something new."
So The Rock is turning the page.
There are some advantages to replacing a Coach Larkey with a Coach Parkey.
"We just had to change one letter on the coach's (office) door," jokes Rockcastle County Athletics Director Barry Noble.
Folks won't be joking about what is expected of the new man -- to win like the old man.
"We've won so long, ever since Coach Larkey was here," says Dale Whitaker, a guidance counselor at Rockcastle County and the school's unofficial sports historian. "Football's really important here now. In a small community, it means so much."
Tony Saylor, who was Rockcastle's longtime defensive coordinator, says the fact that Parkey both played for and coached under Larkey should ease the transition. "I think he'll do most of the similar things," Saylor says. "So it won't be that big a shock to the boys."
Parkey, 34, quips that, in his playing days at Rockcastle (he's a 1992 RCHS graduate), he was the perfect Tom Larkey quarterback. "I handed the ball off a whole lot," he says.
It often seems the case that quarterbacks not allowed to throw much become pass-oriented coaches.
"I think people see me as more a passing kind of guy than Coach Larkey," Parkey says. "So I think people are excited about that. But we're still going to run the ball. You have to run the ball to win in our area. It's just our linemen aren't as big and our backs aren't as big as people have gotten used to. So we may have to run the ball in some different ways."
Larkey is hardly the first coach who achieved iconic status in his community to move on. After leading Boyle County to those five state titles (with a 3A runner-up finish in the sixth year), Chuck Smith left for an assistant's job at UK.
Boyle AD Jim Spears says the first challenge for the new man following such a prominent coach is striking the right balance between what you change and what you preserve.
"It's sort of human nature that everyone around the program wants to keep things as much the way they were as they can," Spears says. "But the game changes. The new coach may have different strengths. It's a tough challenge."
Since Smith departed, Boyle has gone a combined 22-15 and has already had a coaching change.
So following the man who made football matter at The Rock figures to be, well, hard.
"These are big shoes to fill, they really are," says Parkey. "But I'm anxious to get things going. People are still going to expect to win here. That's the way I want it."