Sam Simpson’s 25-year staying power at Henry Clay

August 30, 2017 FieldsColumn

Henry Clay football has been a family affair for Sam Simpson, shown with (l-r) sons Samuel and Salin, wife Sheri, and son Sullivan, who also went on to play for the Blue Devils.

BY MIKE FIELDS

Henry Clay football coach Sam Simpson sat in his office in the Blue Devils’ fieldhouse one morning last week, mulling a reporter’s question: How does he still bring energy and enthusiasm to a job he’s held for 25 years now?

His longevity is remarkable considering how much turnover there has been in Lexington’s football coaching ranks. Since Henry Clay hired Simpson to succeed Jake Bell in 1993, the other six football teams in town (not counting new Frederick Douglass) have had 35 different coaches.

Sam Simpson

Another measure of his long tenure: Including the five years he coached at Marion County before coming to Henry Clay, Simpson has 220 career victories. The other current coaches in town have a combined 213 wins.

So what makes Simpson an outlier, a guy who has stayed put in a profession where moving on is a constant?

Much of it has to do with how Simpson has always approached coaching.

“Never in my career did I look to the extended future,” he said. “I looked to be prepared for the next moment, the next day, the next week. I didn’t think about where I might want to be down the road. It was, ‘What’s in front of me? What’s my team look like this year? What do we have to do to be successful this year?’

“I was always living in the present.”

Simpson grew up in Scott County where he was a standout player for Bill Wilson’s Cardinals. He went on to play at Kentucky for a couple seasons before finishing up his college career at Georgetown.

Simpson said that his high school teachers, most notably Evelyn Aulick and Jewell Woodroof, and coaches, especially Wilson and Hoot Gibson, were “profoundly influential” in shaping his future.

“Resting on my heart was the appreciation I had for what they meant to me and how they inspired me,” he said. “They challenged me and encouraged me. They’re why I wanted to be a coach and a teacher.”

Simpson started coaching at Woodford County as an assistant to Dan Cassity. He excelled as a health and phys-ed teacher, earning Teacher of the Year honors. That award didn’t keep him from having his position cut, however, because he was low on the tenure totem pole.

But when that door closed, another opened. He was hired as head coach at Marion County and was there five seasons.

Then Henry Clay came calling.

“We saw this as an opportunity to get closer to family,” Simpson said. His mother lived in Georgetown, and his wife Sheri’s parents were also in the area.

Sam Simpson was 33 when he took over as Henry Clay coach 25 years ago. (Herald-Leader photo)

Simpson also felt privileged to follow Bell and to be part of the Henry Clay tradition that dated back to the legendary John Heber.

The Blue Devils have been consistent winners under Simpson, who’s posted a winning record in 18 of 24 seasons. Henry Clay was Class 4A state runner-up in 1995, and lost in the semifinals to eventual champ Trinity in 2005 and 2006.

The ’95 season was something special. Henry Clay finished the regular season 5-5, but pulled off four consecutive upsets in the playoffs — beating Madison Central , Clark County, Boone County and Louisville Central – to reach the state finals against St. Xavier.

The Devils lost the championship game 26-0, but Simpson couldn’t have been prouder of his team’s remarkable turnaround.

“The greatest disappointment you have as a coach is when you look into the eyes of your kids and see defeat,” he said. “I saw that late in the regular season.

“The greatest feeling you have as coach is when you look into the eyes of your kids and see desire and inspiration. When we were in that playoff run, I saw that in their eyes.”

Simpson will be the first to admit that his success at Henry Clay has been built on scores of great players (a litany that could begin with Shane Boyd and Zia Combs), and hundreds of players who were loyal and dutiful.

Over the years, Simpson has gotten feelers from other schools. “But it seemed every time I was approached by somebody, there was something happening here,” he said.

Not long after the Devils’ run to the finals in ’95, for example, they broke ground on a fieldhouse. If enough money wasn’t raised by the booster club, Simpson and five other people were on the note to pay for it.

When his three sons – Salin, Samuel and Sullivan – were old enough to play for him, he wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to coach them at Henry Clay.

Salin shone at quarterback in 2003, ’04 and ’05. Samuel and Sully suited up in the blue & gold after that and were standout centers.

“Coaching my sons, the thing I’m most grateful and thankful for is that they never walked through that door and expected more from me than what I did for the other players,” Simpson said. “I love them a lot for that.”

(Salin and Samuel are now assistants at Henry Clay.)

Sheri Simpson said there’s another, deeper reason for her husband’s steadfastness.

“He has a very strong faith; he’s a very Christian man. This is where we thought God wanted us to be and what he wanted us to do.

“It’s not all about winning. It’s also about helping kids and doing what’s right for them.”

Simpson said he and his wife, who’ve been married 35 years, are partners in their football life.

“I couldn’t have done what I’ve done without her. She’s that last line of defense. I’m pretty good at beating myself up when things aren’t going well. If there was any strategy for redirecting the course toward insanity, it’s having a wife like her.

“She reminds me what’s important. She’s always positive. And she always cheers as hard for all the players as she did for her own boys.”

Simpson also credits the long line of assistants he’s had over the years, including Marty Joyce, who’s been with him for almost 20 years. Joyce, who teamed with Don Danko to coach Clark County to the 1991 state title, handles the offensive line.

“Marty understands the whole concept of things,” Simpson said, “like the dynamics of developing kids and the importance of an off-season program.”

Much has changed at Henry Clay since Simpson arrived here a quarter century ago. The Blue Devils have a new fieldhouse, a new stadium, a new artificial turf field.

Simpson’s life has changed, too. He’s retired from teaching health and PE at Henry Clay, and now teaches a sports management class at UK.

And at 58, he’s a granddad. He babysits Salin’s three-month old son Sawyer three mornings a week.

What hasn’t changed is how Sam Simpson feels about Henry Clay football and what it means to him and his players.

Kelly Rixie

He gets up from his chair and retrieves a framed photograph from a shelf high above his office window. 

The photo is of Henry Clay football alum Kelly Rixie, a computer technician for the Navy’s aircraft carriers.

Rixie wasn’t the most talented player, and going into his senior year had never been a starter. But he never quit working, never gave up on contributing to the Blue Devils’ cause.

He finally got his big chance in the 2000 season opener against Tates Creek. In the closing minutes, Rixie, a backup tight end playing with a broken finger, caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from David Buchanan to give Henry Clay a 20-19 victory.

After the game, Buchanan called it a “magical moment.”

Years later, Rixie showed up at a Henry Clay practice to say hello to his former coach and reminisce about his heroic play against Tates Creek.

Simpson recalled what Rixie told him:  “He said, ‘You know what that taught me, coach? It taught me to always be ready for the moment.'”

That’s why Sam Simpson has been at Henry Clay 25 years. To teach his players to be ready for the moment, not just in football, but also in life.