PROFILE: The Patriarch: Briarwood legend isn’t slowing down
Published 4:56 pm Tuesday, March 7, 2017
By BAKER ELLIS | Staff Writer
His office is small. Unassuming even. Located deep inside the high school where he has been working for longer than any student attending has been alive, there is nothing grandiose or even slightly noteworthy about this room from the outside. Inside, the four walls are strewn with memories that highlight pieces of the picture his career has painted, but still, the most noteworthy element of this place is precisely how ordinary it seems.
The man occupying the room is slender, but there is no doubting his strength. At the spry age of 71, his blue eyes are as sharp as ever, missing nothing and taking in everything behind his trademark, oval reading glasses. His crew-neck sweatshirt is likely older than most of the players he coaches, but, like its owner, shows no signs of wearing down. With a host of other obligations no doubt constantly tugging at his sleeve, needing to be dealt with, he is a master at making whoever he is talking to feel valued. His smile is contagious, and his voice crackles with the passion of a man who has never doubted he is fulfilling his life’s calling. His name is Fred Yancey, and he’s one of the best football coaches this state has ever seen.
Yancey has been Briarwood Christian School’s head football coach since 1990. Since arriving, he has amassed a 255-91 record, good for a winning percentage hovering around 74 percent. He is one of only 16 high school coaches in the history of the state of Alabama to win at least 250 football games, and of that group is one of only two coaches, alongside Buddy Anderson of Vestavia Hills, who has spent his entire career in the state at one school.
He has coached one undefeated team, has won at least 10 games in 14 different seasons, has made the playoffs in an incredible 24 consecutive seasons and has won 15 region titles to go along with three state championships. When talking about the most successful high school football coaches ever to stalk a sideline in this state, Fred Yancey has emphatically earned a spot in that discussion.
While his accomplishments on the gridiron are historic by themselves, wins and losses are not the measurement by which Yancey marks his success. A man of sound faith who has a love for people, the impact he leaves on his players lives on long after the glow from the Friday night lights has dimmed on their prep careers.
The Early Years
Since he has been at Briarwood for nearly three decades now, it can be easy to assume Yancey is an Alabama native, which he isn’t. Born and raised in Memphis, Yancey spent the first 40-plus years of his life outside the state. An avid sports fan and participant from a young age, Yancey knew early on what it was he wanted to do with his life. His first job out of college was at Overton High School in Memphis (located, interestingly enough, in Shelby County, Tennessee), and he couldn’t believe his luck.
“I was an assistant football coach, the assistant basketball coach, assistant track coach, and I taught five American histories, and they actually paid me $6,200 to do all that,” Yancey said in a Nov. 2 interview with a smile. “I couldn’t believe it. I mean they were paying me money to do something that was just so much fun.”
Yancey reminisces on that time and that opportunity with obvious fondness. The love he had for his work fresh out of college is still with him today, which is a rare and wonderful thing.
“I love teaching,” he said simply. “That was a great beginning for me, because everything I had wanted to do professionally was to coach and be a teacher, and I was getting to do it right away, and I’ve really never looked back.”
Optimism is not uncommon among young people when entering the professional world. Bright eyed and bushy tailed, there is often a naive but commendable desire to affect real change in a tangible way, but often that energy and that optimism slowly gets sapped away over the course of a career. Life happens. Priorities change. As a result, that optimism far too often is replaced with cynicism, or even worse malaise. While there have no doubt been tough and trying times over the course of his career, Yancey remains a shining example of a man who has been able to hold on to the feeling that first swelled in his chest during the fall of 1969.
“I always just felt like this is what the Lord wanted me to do,” Yancey said simply. “I never looked around for anything else or thought I was in the wrong place. I’ve just always loved education, and I have always just thought of myself as a school man.”
Yancey got his first opportunity to be a head football coach at Towering Oaks School in 1974, also located in Memphis, when he was 29 years old. The differences between his assistant coaching positions before and his first head coaching role were immediate and palpable first and foremost, and also helped bring home a valuable lesson.
“The weight of responsibility increased immediately,” Yancey said. “When I was an assistant coach, I really had a lot of answers. I had answers to stuff I had no business having answers to. I just was the smartest guy at Overton High School when I was an assistant. But when I became the head coach that weighed heavier on me. I didn’t feel burdened by it, but there was just a difference there.
“All of the sudden I realized it was time for me to truly grow up,” he continued. “As both a professional and as a coach. I needed to lead others way more than I’d ever had to lead before. It challenged me to seek out help from other people. I didn’t mind getting help from anybody. One of the things I tried really hard to do once I became a head coach was to understand that I didn’t have all the answers.”
His time at Towering Oaks was followed by small stint as an administrator at the Southern Baptist Educational Center in Memphis before he took a position as the head of a small school in Eatonton, Ga., where he was also able to coach football and track. After a few years in Georgia, and with the desire to get his children into Christian education, he took a position as the dean of students and athletic director at Evangelical Christian School, back in Memphis. ECS at the time had a very successful and long-time varsity football coach, which meant Yancey took over as the freshman coach. What he could have viewed as something of a coaching demotion became instead something of a teaching point.
“I found out real quick, it doesn’t matter what level you’re coaching, coaching is coaching,” he said. “It was great fun. We had some real good teams, I loved it. It was a step down athletically, but it was worth it.”
Then, in 1990, with his oldest son heading into his junior year at ECS, Yancey accepted a position as the dean of students and head football coach at a new school in a new city, and quickly made his mark.
Creating a Dynasty
Briarwood Christian resembled ECS closely, which is in part what helped ease the move for the Yancey’s, as he and his wife were always firmly committed to educating their children in a Christian school setting. While he was confident the move was the right choice, his oldest son Bart struggled with decision at first. A talented young quarterback with a strong arm, Bart would go on to be a four-year starter at Samford University, but in that moment as a junior in high school, it wasn’t ideal.
“He didn’t feel great about that move, it about broke his heart,” Yancey said of his son. “Until we were here for a little while and he realized that the Lord was still in control of his life and in control of all our lives.”
In the two years prior to Yancey’s arrival, Briarwood had gone a paltry 3-16 at the 3A level. In 1990, with his son under center, the Lions went 11-2 and made an appearance in the third round of the playoffs, which had never been done before.
“I’ve always considered that 1990 team about the most fun team I’ve ever coached,” Yancey said. “Every game those kids were just so thrilled and excited, and it meant a lot to them. It was a real special start.”
While that 1990 season was an obvious harbinger of things to come for the marriage between Yancey and Briarwood, there was still a rough patch at the start. The next two seasons, from 1991-92, still stand as the only two years a Yancey-coached Briarwood team has not made the playoffs, as those teams went 5-5 and 4-6. During that time the Lions were building up their youth football program, which was nonexistent before Yancey arrived and is now one of Briarwood’s biggest strengths, according to Yancey. From 1993-95 the Lions made the playoffs each year and were trending in the right direction, but were by no means elite. Heading into his seventh year at Briarwood, however, Yancey received some advice that he believes changed everything.
At a coaching clinic at Memphis State in the spring of 1996, Yancey ran into longtime Hartselle head coach Don Woods. Woods asked Yancey if he was running a two-platoon system, which is a system where players only play one position and don’t play both offense and defense. Yancey, who routinely had less than 40 kids on his team, said he didn’t think he had the numbers for such a system. Woods assured him that he did, which caught Yancey’s attention.
“He said, ‘You take a quarterback, a wide receiver and a running back, and then give the next 11 players to your defensive coach, will he have a good defense?’” Yancey recalled. “I told him we’d have a real good defense if those boys didn’t play anything else. He said, ‘Build your offense around those other three guys with what’s left.’”
Yancey took Woods’ advice that fall, and for two weeks in spring practice his offense was annihilated by his defense.
“For two weeks in the spring our defense killed us,” Yancey said. “We didn’t make one first down in two weeks, until the last day of spring practice we made one first down. But that’s all I needed, just a little encouragement for those guys because I saw how great our defense was going to be, and I had great coaches.”
That 1996 team went undefeated in the regular season, ending the year as the top-ranked team in 3A before finishing 13-1. The defense that year gave up less than 10 points per game while the offense came around and averaged nearly 26 a game, and Yancey was named the Coach of the Year at the 3A level by the ASWA. That year was the start of an eight-year stint in which Briarwood won 100 games, lost just 12 and won three state titles. Always willing to take advice and always trying to learn, the system he had inherited from Woods, to put it lightly, worked.
Briarwood won back-to-back 3A titles in 1998-99 and showed no signs of slowing down heading into the new millennium when the private-school multiplier was put into effect. The new rule, handed down by the AHSAA, stated that private schools had to multiply their true enrollment by 1.35 for the purposes of athletic classification, which pushed Briarwood from the 3A level up to 5A.
In 5A ball the Lions had three straight seasons of either 11 or 12 wins before winning the 5A state title in 2003 with a 13-2 record. His teams were more prepared for 5A ball than Yancey originally thought, and there is no telling how many straight state titles the Lions might have won playing at the 3A level.
“It would have probably been a double-figures number (of state titles) if we’d been playing in that classification for all those years,” Yancey said, without a hint of a brag in his voice.
While Yancey obviously has a mind for football schemes and in-game adjustments, one of the more remarkable attributes of Yancey’s persona is his memory. No year runs together, he can pinpoint games and plays from seasons 20 years in the past with alarming accuracy, and he can do the same with players from the past. Over the course of his career he has had countless boys pass through his program, and there are few he doesn’t remember.
“Over the years it’s been kind of fun and funny,” Yancey said. “Sometimes I’ll see a former player and I don’t remember his name, but I’ll remember his number. They’d rather me remember their number than their name any day. The Lord has just helped me with that, it’s been a neat touch.”
When Yancey won his 250th game as Briarwood’s head coach midway through the 2016 season in a 43-21 win over Shelby County, a number of those former players reached out to him, including the best high school player Yancey ever coached, former five-time First Team All-State selection Tim Castille.
“That was mighty nice of all those guys,” Yancey said. “It meant a lot.”
The number of former players, spanning a wide range of ages, who reached out to share their congratulations with their former coach speaks more to Yancey’s impact than almost anything else.
Not Done Yet
At 71 years of age, the question is simply inescapable. How much longer, exactly, can you keep doing this?
It’s a question he doesn’t try to avoid, and one he has no doubt fielded numerous times. In response, Yancey is somewhat ambiguous with how much longer he’ll be around.
“It boils down to a couple of things,” Yancey said. “One, if I’m effective. I count on my bosses to keep me there. As long as I’m doing a good job they’ll let me know and if they ever feel like something’s slipping they’ll let me know that too. Two, that I still feel great, and I do. I feel as good as I did when I was 32. I love doing what I do, and I feel good.”
It is true that Yancey still moves as well, if not better, than men half his age, and from a physical standpoint shows no signs of slowing down. Nevertheless, there will obviously come a day when Yancey leaves this school and rides off into the sunset, leaving behind quite a large pair of shoes to fill. When that day comes, whenever it is, there will no doubt be more articles written and more celebrations held in his honor. But that day is not yet upon us.
And until that day comes the Patriarch of Briarwood football will still be here, spending his time either in this unassuming office, in the weight room just down the hall or on the football field that he has come to know so intimately, still not quite believing that someone is paying him to have so much fun.