Tom Larkey has dedicated more than half his life to coaching high school football. This month, the Kentucky coaching fixture retired, but he doesn’t think his involvement with the sport is over.
“I’m not riding off into the sunset,” Larkey said in a phone interview with the Herald-Leader last week. “I’m getting off the horse and walking awhile.”
Larkey spent the past three seasons at Perry County Central before announcing his retirement from the Commodores’ head coaching position last week. Last fall, he picked up his 300th win, becoming only the 10th coach in state history to accomplish that feat. His career record as a head coach sits at 303-136 in 37 seasons.
The bulk of those wins were achieved at Rockcastle County, at which Larkey ended up in 1984, seven years after he was let go at Laurel County (he went 21-20 coaching his hometown team from 1974-77). Larkey was 212-67 at Rockcastle County in 23 seasons with the Rockets, who had a losing record his first year but never again on his watch.
Rockcastle County won six region titles and played in its only two state football finals under Larkey.
“When I went to Rockcastle, that wasn’t even a dream, to ever be in a state finals,” Larkey said. “Things kept getting good and we made it. It was one of the biggest things to ever happen to the county, I think. Unfortunately, two years in a row, we had to play Boyle County.”
The Rockets reached the Class 3A championship game in 2001 and 2002, which ended in titles No. 3 and 4 for Boyle County while it was in the midst of winning five straight at the turn of the century.
“We were good enough to win that thing against most teams, if Boyle County hadn’t been so great,” Larkey said with a laugh.
In 2008 Larkey became the first head coach at Harlan County, where he guided teams to two region titles in seven seasons. He arrived at Perry County Central in 2015.
Larkey went under the knife on several occasions throughout his tenure. He had angioplasties performed in 1988 and 1989, had cancer removed from his prostate in 2001, had quadruple-bypass surgery in 2004 and had a second open-heart surgery performed in 2012.
The only operation that kept Larkey away from the sidelines was the cancer surgery, but his wife Darlene drove him to Rockcastle County’s game at Estill County, where she parked the car behind a red caboose on a nearby hillside, from where Larkey relayed suggestions to his son Chris, an assistant for the Rockets.
Besides an unwillingness to give in, the thread that connects all of Larkey’s stops is the relationships he’s built and the impact he’s made on the lives of people he’s coached.
“When you hear someone say you’ve had a big influence in their life, that’s worth everything to me,” Larkey said. “A good pat on the back is good for anybody. It’s better than a paycheck sometimes. At least it makes you smile a little bit.”
Larkey, 68, has six grandchildren, ages 4-12, and he wants to spend more time with them, his wife, Darlene, and his two sons, Chris and Dackery, both of whom played for him at Rockcastle County.
“You get to a certain point where you have to put some things first, and that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m missing out on a lot by not watching them. That’s what I’ve got to start doing,” Larkey said. “ … I want them to remember me doing that.”
Chris has been the head coach at North Laurel since 2009. His son, Christian, will be in the program soon. Christian sent Tom a text upon hearing about his retirement: “Congratulations papaw. Now you can come coach me.”
Family drove Larkey to hang up his whistle, but it’s also what will keep him near the sidelines.