By Blake Ells
In 29 seasons as head football coach at Briarwood Christian School, Fred Yancey’s record was 278-95. He led the Lions to state championships in 1998, 1999 and 2003 and to runner-up positions in 2007, 2010 and 2017.
At the conclusion of the 2018 season, Yancey told his team that he would be retiring.
“I was going to have to retire sooner or later, and either time, it was going to be a pretty long career and no matter when I chose to retire, there were going to be some regrets,” Yancey said. “But the reality is that I do need to end my coaching career in a proper and right way and at the right time. I think that, all things considered, this is a good time to do it.”
Some in his closest inner circle knew that the decision was close. Many of Yancey’s former players have gone on to NFL careers, while others have jumped into the coaching profession themselves.
“I don’t know how many people he had told, but he let me know about a month before he did (it),” said Joe Craddock, who is currently the offensive coordinator at Arkansas and was the quarterback of Yancey’s last state championship team. “We talk a lot.”
That connection illustrates a side of Yancey with which many people were not familiar. He maintained connections with the former athletes from his teams as they grew into men with families of their own.
“He came and watched me play in college (at Middle Tennessee State),” Craddock said. “I’ll never forget that. I get choked up thinking about it, honestly. That’s how much he means to me. For him to show up and watch me play and mentor me as a coach – we’ve kept in touch a lot. He came to Little Rock last year and watched our spring game in freezing weather and rain, and he stood there and watched.”
“I’ve enjoyed a great relationship with so many over the years,” said Yancey. “There’s a lot of special times with former players.”
In his time with the Lions, Yancey enjoyed a lot of success. He steps away ranked 11th in the state’s history for coaching victories, just 57 victories behind the all-time leader, Buddy Anderson at Vestavia Hills. But Yancey spent several years coaching near his home in Memphis and a couple of years in Georgia before arriving at Briarwood in 1989, and those years don’t count in his Alabama tally.
Lessons in Leadership
His lessons went well beyond the football field.
“To anyone who knows him personally, it’s no surprise that coach Yancey had such a long and successful career,” said former Auburn offensive tackle Andrew McCain. “He is a true leader of men. He taught me so much about being a leader who leads from the front. He did so daily with skill, grace and integrity. He taught me the importance of getting a little better every single day.
“The practice habits I developed under coach Yancey helped me navigate three position changes in college. There were many times when I got frustrated, but when I leaned on the lessons I learned from coach Yancey and his staff, namely coach Mike Forrester and coach Shane Harmon, I was reminded to persevere with selflessness and intention.”
The wins and losses aren’t how Yancey reflects on what he did right during his career; not the three state championships or the three times they came up just short.
“I think we got a lot of kids playing,” said Yancey. “We always had a high percentage of participation, and that meant a lot of kids were having fun. You can’t have a program with good participation unless they’re enjoying it. It was a fun program to play in.”
He’ll also leave with a few regrets. But those will mostly be how much he knows he’ll miss the game.
“I’m going to regret every time that I don’t get to coach on Friday night and win a game,” he said. “It was so much fun! I’ll regret even losing some of those games, because that’s all part of the deal. I will miss all of that. I will miss the boys. I will miss practices. I don’t have any doubt that I will have seasons of remembering how fun it was. But I’m confident that this is a good time for me to retire and the Lord has blessed me with a wonderful career. I would love to stay 44-years-old for years and years, but I can’t do it.”
While his own roots are in the Memphis area, he’s long since replanted roots here. Now 73 years old, this is where his family is, this is where his children are, this is where his grandchildren are. He’ll still go out and watch his former team play occasionally. But he has no intentions of being involved in the program beyond his retirement.
He’s never had much time for hobbies; coaching took up all of his time.
“That’ll be a new job for me,” he said. “Trying to figure out what to do with my time will be a new challenge. I coach football. That’s what I do and what I have done.”