Legacy of former LHSAA commissioner Tommy Henry lives on | Marcase

John Marcase
Special to The Town Talk

With each passing year, the legacy of Tommy Henry only grows stronger and greater.

Henry, who served as the third commissioner of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, had a long and successful tenure with the organization and only at the end did things get messy as he was accused of using the LHSAA as his personal credit card.

For his detractors, it was validation of what they long believed – Henry ruled the LHSAA as dictator.

For his supporters, it was just small blip on a career that is being appreciated more and more as one looks at what the LHSAA is today – a fractured organization.

“No question, Tommy fended off more than one attempt for a public-private split,” said Mitch Small, the LHSAA’s longtime marketing director. “It was growing in popularity, and he squelched it.”

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Former Port Barre principal Bill Duplechain (left) and former LHSAA commissioner Tommy Henry discuss a 2004 action to study a proposal to divide the LHSA into public and non-public schools.

Henry, an Alexandria native and graduate of Bolton High School and Northwestern State, died Friday in Baton Rouge. He was 84. 

Henry served as commissioner of the LHSAA from 1983-2007.

Even though Henry was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 2008, the impact of his time with the LHSAA is still evident throughout the state’s high school sports landscape. Such things as playing the football championships in the Superdome … getting corporate sponsorships … adding more championship opportunities for girls … making championships not just games or meets, but events … all came courtesy of Henry.

“One thing I’ll never forget was he said, ‘Mitch, the state championships, I want to make those a first-class event,” said Small. “And he did. I’ll always remember that.”

Small played a large role in helping LHSAA reserves grow from $40,000 when Henry ascended from assistant commissioner under Frank Spruiell to $1.7 million when Henry retired. Small, hired in 1991, was the first marketing director for any state high school association in the country.

“I had a career in high school sports because of Tommy’s vision.” said Small, who retired in 2019. “It came about because they needed extra revenue and Tommy didn’t want to raise school dues or ticket prices. He took a chance on me. It was his vision that allowed me to work there.”

Tommy Henry

“Others have used the term visionary to describe Tommy Henry,” said longtime Tioga girls basketball coach Kathy Holloway, “and that is the perfect word. He was a person with original ideas about what the future could be like.”

Holloway was the first female president of the Louisiana High School Coaches Association and National High School Athletic Coaches Association.

“I am so thankful to have been present when Tommy often challenged the LHSAA executive committee  or the LHSCA executive council to do more,” she said. “ ‘How can we make it better?’ was always before us. And because of Tommy’s leadership and vision, we did just that.”

In the 1990s, the Superdome Classic set numerous attendance records and the Top 28 did the same after moving from LSU to Lafayette’s Cajundome. But the one event Henry enjoyed seeing blossom the most was the state softball tournament. When its original venue in Lafayette was no longer an option, Henry called upon his former Bolton classmate, Jodie White, Alexandria’s longtime parks and recreation director. They played the tournament at the Youth Complex next to the Bringhurst Field and it quickly became one of the LHSAA’s showcase events.

But Henry’s legacy forever will be known by his ability to keep a fractured organization together. The public school vs. private school debate didn’t just start with Henry’s two successors. Even though he never had a vote, Henry would often end debate by providing his opinion on a topic, followed by, “But, it’s your organization. You do what you want.” It is amazing how many times what the LHSAA wanted was what Henry deemed best.

“Tommy could be polarizing, but I came to realize it was the job that was polarizing,” said Small. “He was the guy to make decisions. Tommy was gonna do what was best.”

“Tommy Henry was the type of leader I admire,” said Holloway. “No one would work harder than he did for the LHSAA.”

Former LHSAA commissioner Tommy Henry, left, and former Southern University footall coach Pete Richardson, right, wait their turns to testify as then-LSU football coach Nick Saban, center, gives his views on HB1408 in the House Commerce Committee, Monday, April 19, 2004, in Baton Rouge, La.

Last Thursday, Holloway received her traditional holiday text from Henry, wishing her a “Happy Thanksgiving.” It was one of hundreds sent by Henry to former colleagues, coaches, principals and administrators.

“I am so thankful to have known Tommy,” said Holloway. “He supported me when I was in leadership positions. He kept me involved by giving me responsibilities to fulfill. He kept in touch by sending out holiday texts. I will forever treasure the ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ wish this year.

“I will always love him and miss him greatly.”

Small last spoke to Henry a week before his passing. He said their conversations always had the same pattern.

“No matter when we talked, we may start with LSU, or politics, but the conversation always gravitated to the LHSAA,” said Small. “That was his life. He loved high school sports.”

John Marcase is a former assistant managing editor and sports editor of The Town Talk. He writes a weekly column.