High School Football

Ex-Somerset coach takes stand, misses state

Like all the lifers who grind away at coaching high school football Friday after Friday, year after year, Jay Cobb has one holy grail:

Winning a Kentucky state championship.

On Saturday in Bowling Green, the Somerset program that Cobb nurtured for 11 years, the Briar Jumpers players that he developed, will face Paducah Tilghman in the Class 3A state title game.

Yet Cobb will only be able to see that promised land, not enter it.

In what was A.) a gutty stand for player safety; B.) an ill-considered move in a conflict with a new school administration; C.) both of the above, Cobb rendered his resignation as Somerset football coach some two weeks before this season began.

Producing one of the strangest great seasons in Kentucky high school sports history, Somerset (14-0) hasn't lost since.

So it is a Briar Jumpers team led by former longtime assistant Rob Lucas that stands on the verge of claiming the state championship that Cobb so longed to deliver for a school that's never won one.

"It's extremely bittersweet for me," Cobb said Wednesday. "And my wife is having a harder time with it than I am. But I'm tickled to death with the job the (coaching) staff is doing. Mostly, I'm just happy for the kids."

With the state championship game pending, Cobb did not want to go into the circumstances that led to his resignation. "I don't want anything to distract the kids," he said.

But back in August, Cobb told the Herald-Leader that he stepped down because "the administration and I had a disagreement over what was needed to provide a safe environment for our players."

After the heat-related death of Pleasure Ridge Park football player Max Gilpin in 2008 and the subsequent criminal trial (and acquittal) this year of his coach, Jason Stinson, protecting players from over-heating has been a focal point of Kentucky high school sports.

The day he resigned in August, Cobb said, a certified athletic trainer began attending Somerset practices and an ice machine was purchased.

First-year Somerset principal Mark Murray said Thursday he would not comment on "things that happened here before I got here. As regards Coach Cobb, I was handed a letter of resignation. After consulting with the superintendent (Teresa Wallace), we accepted it."

In a year when the Briar Jumpers were expecting a big year on the football field, the result could have been disaster and dissension.

It was not only that Somerset went through a coaching change so close to the start of the season. Both Cobb, 52, and his wife Sara still teach at the high school.

"But I have to give Coach Cobb a lot of credit," Murray said. "He pulled back and did a good job of not becoming a distraction. And Coach Lucas did a tremendous job getting us through the transition."

For Cobb, "pulling back" has meant not being on the sidelines on Friday nights for the first time since he started his coaching career in 1983.

On some weekends, Cobb got his football fix by attending Vanderbilt games. His former Somerset star, John Cole, became a standout receiver for the Commodores this fall.

When he hasn't been at Vandy, Cobb found trying to listen to Somerset games on the radio nerve wracking. "So, on Friday nights, I've just been at my house," he said. "I know it's driving my wife crazy."

While going 82-48 in his 11 years at Somerset, Cobb led teams to the semifinals of the playoffs three different times. But they never made the state finals.

After the Briar Jumpers beat Sheldon Clark in this year's 3A semis, Cobb said several of his former players made a point of seeking him out at school.

"I told them how proud I was of them for getting over that hump," he said.

Now, after four prior runner-up finishes, Somerset has its long-coveted first state title within grasp.

"This is still Coach Cobb's team," says Lucas. "He put the system in place and groomed the kids. I wish he was here to reap the rewards."

All week, Cobb says he's been getting e-mails from out-of-state acquaintances wishing him good luck.

"I guess they don't know," he said of his resignation.

Figuring that Western Kentucky University's Houchens-L.T. Smith Stadium is large enough to obscure his presence, Cobb says he plans to attend the state championship game with Tilghman (8-6).

Meanwhile, seeing how the Somerset season has unfolded, Cobb says his coaching buddies all ask the same question:

Knowing what he knows now, would Cobb still have written that resignation letter?

"I tell my buddies I think I did the right thing," Cobb said. "As hard as it's been, I know I did the right thing."

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