By Brian Hoffman and special guest Mike Ashley
When Salem native Mike Ashley is inducted into the Radford University Athletic Hall of Fame on September 30 they’re going to give him eight minutes to speak. I’m sorry, but that’s not going to be enough.
If you’ve never caught Mike’s act, you’re missing out. He’s a story teller extraordinaire who has spent most of his life around sports, but also moonlighted as a standup comic. One of my favorite lines of any comedian ever is Mike recalling that, “the last time I was inside a woman is when I visited the Statue of Liberty.”
When the local comedy club closed its doors Mike shut down his budding comedy career, but he’ll have you on the floor laughing with his sports stories as well. He’ll need more than the eight allotted minutes at the induction ceremony, where he’ll join Jim Abbott (baseball), Helen Negrey (women’s soccer), Art Parakhouski (men’s basketball) and Patrinda Toney (women’s basketball) in the Highlander class of 2022. The five-member class is the 19th to be inducted into the Radford Athletics Hall of Fame following a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s induction ceremony will once again help kick off Homecoming Weekend festivities and will be held inside Kyle Hall.
The bio sent out by Radford University upon the announcement of his induction reads as follows.
“The walking embodiment of Radford Highlanders knowledge and pride, Mike Ashley is a true connection between the past and present. He came to Radford University as a student in 1980 and immediately began writing for The Tartan, eventually becoming its sports editor. A column he wrote launched the first RU baseball club in 1982, for which he served as the initial president. Two years later, the club became a varsity team. Ashley would graduate in 1983 and return to his alma mater as a Sports Information Director across multiple stints that spanned more than a decade. He was a member of the staff that ushered the Highlanders into the Division I era, he helped mount a national campaign that helped the women’s basketball program earn a spot in the 1989 Women’s NIT and he was a founding member of the Radford University Sports Hall of Fame Committee in 1995.”
Mike’s story began right here in Salem. He grew up near the old Lakeside Amusement Park and went to Elementary School at Conehurst, in the building that now houses National College. That used to be National Business College if you’re not familiar with the name change.
Ashley has many stories about playing hoops at the “Conedome” basketball court behind the school. He was a good player and a solid shooter but, much like myself, he looked more like a shorter version of Charles Barkley before Moses Malone got ahold of him.
Mike could easily fill way more than eight minutes with stories about Conehurst alone, where he is perhaps the GOAT of that East Salem court. As luck would have it Mike also worked as a summer supervisor at Conehurst for the city summer recreation program, where he likes to boast that he was special enough to have been entrusted with a key to the water spicket.
So how is this all working toward Radford University? Well, Mike can tell it here without a time or word limit.
“This is more of a Salem story, too, than most people realize,” he said. “The reason I went to Radford had a lot to do with Joe Davis, who I met that first year at Salem High School (1977-78) when he came back from Ferrum to coach the Spartans my senior year. I was editor of ‘The Oracle,’ the SHS newspaper, and I also made myself sports editor so I could write my passion. We all thought the team would be great but it didn’t work out that way but Coach Davis liked how I covered them. I ended up at Virginia Western, unsure of what I wanted to do, and Coach kind of recruited me — packets and everything. I missed writing so much at VWCC that it became clear what I should pursue and RU was, at the time, the second largest journalism program in the state. Also, importantly, it was not far from home. Coach D, people in Salem know how special he is, opened some doors for me on campus and well, here we are.”
There’s never been a better ambassador for Radford University than Mike. He can tell you about most any athlete who did anything at the school since they started admitting men in 1972.
“It still seems unbalanced how much that place has given me over the years and now this,” he said. “I met my wife there. I got that ‘broad-based liberal arts education’ Dr. (Donald) Dedmon championed for all of us, won some national writing awards as a student, a 1982 feature on Salemite Chris Nelson won second in the nation sports features from the Society of Collegiate Journalists, I met people that mean so much to me and I had a great ride from an NAIA program through NCAA Division II to Division I, really learning how college athletics work.”
As mentioned in the bio, Mike is credited with starting the baseball program at Radford.
“I get a lot of credit for starting baseball but that was really just a channeling of so many local kids that were at RU thinking they would have a baseball team,” he said. “It just took my column in the student newspaper and we were off as a club. Two years later RU joined the Big South contingent on it becoming a varsity sport.”
Mike can fill up more than eight minutes on funny stories about the baseball team, too, recalling a 38-0 loss to Campbell in the first year of the program. At the time that was an NCAA record.
“For years I would check the record book every season to see if we still had that record,” he said. “Then one year Methodist lost a game 41-0 and it was a real relief not to have that record anymore.”
Radford finished 4-26 that first year, including dropping a doubleheader to Liberty by scores of 21-0 and 28-0, while playing all their games on the road. However, as the years passed the program flourished and Mike is proud to have been part of the founding.
Ashley spent 17 years in Radford and he’s still fondly remembered in the area, much as he is in Salem. So, when he left to pursue a job in northern Virginia it was with mixed emotions.
“When I left in ’97 to get married and move to Northern Virginia it was tough adjusting after living in Salem and Radford my whole life,” he said. “Back home, the Beltway inner loop is East Main Street and the outer loop is Fourth Street. I missed being a part of something I believed in, what Radford is and can provide to Southwest Virginia, and I so missed the interaction with the students, watching them grow and develop like I once did.
“I was fortunate to work with a lot of great student-workers and I think that’s my true legacy. I saw kids with the same ‘want to’ I had, kids like Marty Smith now at ESPN; Jon Steinberg, Director of Communications for the Atlanta Hawks; Rick Thompson, who was Number 2 in the University Kentucky Athletic Department before he left to do his own thing putting together deals; Drew Dickerson, Assistant Commissioner of the Atlantic 10; Chris King who owns his own company promoting Myrtle Beach golf courses; Bob Blubaugh with the Baltimore Sun, and many others in the communications field who went on to have success.”
Mike still gets back to Salem on occasion and enjoys hooking up with his old buddies and swapping stories that seem to get even funnier as the years go by. He’s a sports guy, and like it’s often been said us sports guys live in the toy department of life.
“Sports is like a big club and I was never good enough as an athlete to join the club that way, I assure you not through lack of effort, so this became my ticket,” he said. “The idea of covering sports, getting into games free and being around something I loved seemed ideal. When you do it at one place for so long it really does become part of you. I wouldn’t trade the memories, the friendships and the passion I experienced for anything and it’s so meaningful to me that those at Radford see that in me.”
I know what he’s saying, because I feel the same way as part of the Salem and Roanoke College communities. It’s nice to get up every morning and love what you do and go to ballgames for a living. And when people thank you for what you do, you feel like you have to thank them back for letting you be a part of their lives.
“I don’t say this out of false humility but when they asked me to jot down some things for my bio, I really had a hard time justifying this honor,” said Ashley. “ Again, I think a lot of it was just how much I enjoyed my job there and sharing that with so many over my 17 years living in Radford.”
C’mon Radford, give the guy at least 20 minutes. You’ll be glad you did.