By TIM GAYLE
Special to the Elmore/Autauga News
After three years of rebuilding a program in shambles, Edgewood Academy’s Darryl Free unexpectedly announced on Monday he was leaving to take a job at W.S. Neal in south Alabama.
Free, the Wildcats’ athletic director, served as the boys’ basketball coach in 2017-18, then added football to his duties in 2018 and softball the following year, transforming or maintaining each as a championship-caliber program.
“It’s been remarkable,” Edgewood Academy headmaster Jay Adams said. “His record speaks for itself. One thing that he did that means more to me than the wins is that he taught these kids how to have pride in their program again. That will carry us even when he’s gone. He’s been a good role model. There are a lot of people that know the game, but finding someone who knows the game and is willing to coach the game with the passion and integrity that he does and also is a person that you can look up to, those are hard to find.”
That, however, will be the task Adams faces in short order. With the start of football practice less than a month away, the Edgewood headmaster wants to have a football coach and athletic director on board as soon as possible.
“Our priority is football coach-AD because school starts in six weeks,” Adams said. “At that point, really, it becomes the new athletic director’s department (to hire additional coaches). I don’t think it would be fair to lock in all the pieces and then bring somebody in to run it.”
He added the application process will remain open through July 10.
“It’s too big of a decision to rush,” Adams said. “We’ll spend two weeks doing interviews and looking at resumes and then we hope to make a decision pretty quickly after July 10. But, again, we’re going to make the right decision, not the fast decision.”
Free came to Edgewood from Glenwood School and was charged with establishing some stability after Bobby Carr’s departure in 2015 robbed the school of some of its top athletes. Eric Folmar took over as football coach of a program that had only a handful of varsity athletes and went 0-11 in 2016 and 1-9 in 2017. Folmar’s contract was not renewed and new coach Rusty Mason was brought in during June, 2018, only to have Mason return to Texas a couple of weeks later.
Free, who had coached basketball the previous season, stepped in as the football coach with only Tyler Abernathy and Hunter Bowdoin as holdovers from Carr’s roster and took the Wildcats to the AA semifinals and an 8-4 record.
That was the start of a highly successful year for the Wildcats, who reached the finals in volleyball, won the AA state championship in boys’ basketball as Free’s team defeated Autauga and won the AA softball title under Mark Segrest.
Segrest, a community coach from Tallassee, stepped down following the 2018 season and Free added those duties as well.
“Recently, I was approached out of the blue about an opportunity that, after much prayer and discussion with my family, I could not turn down,” Free said in a letter to Edgewood parents. “This whole situation happened suddenly and unexpectedly. We just felt like God is opening a door for us and we have decided to take a leap of faith, much like we did when we came to Edgewood.”
Free will be the offensive coordinator in football and the boys’ basketball coach for W.S. Neal in East Brewton.
“Be assured that this situation is simply an opportunity for my family to move toward my long-term goal of coaching at the collegiate level,” Free said in his letter, “and in no way anything negative towards Edgewood. I love this school, the kids, the parents, and the people I had the pleasure of working with every day. I have complete confidence in Coach Adams and the EA school board that the success of Edgewood Academy is only just beginning. After all, a successful program is not just one person but a group of people who buy into a common goal.”
Adams met with his athletic director in what he described as a difficult, emotional meeting on Monday as Free announced his departure.
“If it’s not hard, that would mean that you’re doing something wrong,” Adams observed. “But the fact that it’s difficult means you’ve done it right – you bought in, you love these kids. There are plenty of coaches who love to win, but finding a coach who loves every athlete like they’re their own kid, that’s rare to find. He’s going to be missed.”
As Adams noted, the top priority is finding an athletic director and head football coach. The positions were separate when Free took the job, however, and Adams said it’s possible his first hire may simply coach football.
“A lot of that will depend on the applicant,” he said. “If we get a ‘home run’ football applicant that has no interest in serving as an athletic director, then that’s something that we would look at.”