High School Baseball

Longtime Henry Clay baseball coach fired

Herb Hammond will be inducted into the Kentucky High School Baseball Coaches Association's Hall of Fame this weekend, a tribute to his 414 victories, including one region championship and eight district titles, in 17 years as Henry Clay's coach.

But Hammond isn't in the mood to celebrate, not after he was fired as the Blue Devils' coach last week by Fayette County Public Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman.

"It's been miserable and embarrassing," Hammond said. "I feel like my dignity has been stripped."

Hammond said he lost his job because a "disgruntled parent" accused him of trying to recruit his son back to Henry Clay after he had transferred to Lexington Catholic last summer.

But Don Adkins, who oversees athletics for Fayette County's public schools, said there was "substantial evidence" against Hammond, including incriminating e-mail messages, and that "the termination of his coaching duties was in a fair manner."

Henry Clay Principal John Nochta concurred: "Ultimately, it was my decision, and a change in the leadership of our baseball program had to be made."

Bill Hurt, a Lexington attorney, is the parent who accused Hammond of recruiting.

Hurt's son, Will, was Henry Clay's starting shortstop and pitched some as a freshman last year.

A rift developed between Hammond and Bill Hurt last season over what teams Will could play for during the summer. It culminated with the Hurts moving across town and Will transferring to Lexington Catholic.

On Hurt's transfer papers, Henry Clay noted an objection, saying that Hurt was switching schools for athletic purposes, which led the KHSAA to initially rule him ineligible for his sophomore season at Lexington Catholic.

The Hurts appealed that ruling.

Before a hearing officer upheld the KHSAA's ruling, Hammond and Bill Hurt exchanged e-mail messages that led to the recruiting allegation.

Hammond sent Hurt a message saying he wanted to try to "get things right" because "a kid should not have to sit out a year of his high school eligibility because of adult disagreements."

Hammond didn't explain in that message that he envisioned a scenario in which Will Hurt could re-enroll at Henry Clay during the Christmas break and be eligible to play for the Devils this spring.

Bill Hurt said he thought Hammond was saying that Henry Clay would drop its objection to the transfer, which would clear the way for the KHSAA to rule his son eligible.

In a follow-up e-mail — the smoking gun that ultimately got him fired — Hammond detailed how Will Hurt could be able to return to Henry Clay and play as a sophomore. That's when the feathers hit the fan.

Bill Hurt sent Hammond a message accusing him of recruiting his son. "The rule against recruiting is perhaps Fayette Co.'s and the KHSAA's most fundamental athletic rule. It's incomprehensible that you would violate it so openly and blatantly," Hurt wrote.

Bylaw 10 in the KHSAA handbook prohibits coaches from trying to influence prospective athletes to enroll in their school.

Hurt also chastised Hammond for e-mailing Lexington Catholic Coach Kevin Clary soon after his son had switched schools, asking Clary to "do the right thing" and not play Will even if he were eligible.

Hammond admitted he did that, saying he told Clary it would be a "dignity check" for the Knights' program.

"Frankly," Bill Hurt wrote, "it's beyond my comprehension that any person who works with kids would attempt to intimidate another coach for the purpose of preventing a child from playing baseball, even where the kid is ruled to be completely eligible."

That's when Bill Hurt contacted school officials to make allegations against Hammond, not just about recruiting, but also violations that had to do with Hammond working with players during the KHSAA's "dead" period.

Hammond admitted he broke a rule about attending a summer game but said he broke no other rules.

While school was out for winter break, Hammond received an e-mail message from Silberman, telling him he was suspended as coach while the allegations were investigated.

Three weeks later, Silberman met with Hammond and fired him.

Fayette County, meanwhile, dropped its objection to Hurt's transfer, and the KHSAA ruled him eligible to play at Lexington Catholic this season.

Bill Hurt said he hasn't talked to anybody at Henry Clay, Fayette County or the KHSAA recently, "so I don't have any idea what the actual basis was for" Hammond being fired.

KHSAA Commissioner Brigid DeVries, in her final report that ruled Hurt eligible, said the "evidence of the e-mails casts doubt on the credibility" of Hammond's testimony, "and calls into question whether or not the original objection of Henry Clay was a valid objection."

Hammond said his dismissal by Silberman didn't take into account what he's done at Henry Clay the last 17 years.

"I've poured my heart and soul into that program," he said. "There was no sensitivity to that."

Hammond said he intends to keep teaching at Henry Clay. As for coaching, he said, he might look elsewhere, outside Fayette County.

Coincidentally, Will Hurt's grandfather, Bill Hurt, was Henry Clay's principal for 18 years before he retired in 1989.