LIBERTY — It was the best football season Casey County has ever known. But like each of the nine seasons before, it was taking a toll on Andy Stephens.
While the Rebels racked up more wins than ever before, their coach continued to face the same obstacles he had always faced, and he said the struggle finally became too much.
Stephens has resigned after 10 years at his alma mater, where he coached longer and won more games than any coach before him — and had a larger workload than most of his peers.
“It’s just kind of worn on me the last few years. And it’s something I’ve been thinking about and talked about before, and finally this is what I decided to do,” Stephens said Tuesday.
Stephens submitted his resignation last week, and he said it wasn’t an easy decision.
“It was tough. I’ve been here 12 years, and this is my hometown, so that made it even tougher,” he said. “I love my kids, and I talked about team all the time, and most of the time I put the team before anything, but this time I decided to put me first. It was a tough call.”
Stephens’ teams went 35-71 in his 10 seasons at Casey, and last season the Rebels enjoyed the best season in the program’s 36-year history. They went 8-4, were runners-up in their Class AAA district and earned the school’s first playoff victory.
Including his two years as an assistant coach, he has been on the Casey staff for each of the school’s three winning seasons and six playoff appearances.
He has also been at the forefront of improvements to the field and fieldhouse and to the middle school and youth programs. There were 25 eighth-graders on the Casey middle school team last season, and more than 200 kids are participating in the youth program.
“When I look from top to bottom at what we’ve built out here ... we’re doing things right. It’s just we’ve got to have more help to do things better,” Stephens said. “Either you’re going to move to that next level or you’re not, and I just didn’t feel like that was going to happen.”
Stephens is the only certified teacher on either the high school or middle school coaching staffs, and there were only three assistant coaches on the high school staff last season, including the middle school coach.
He declined to criticize any person or group for what he sees as a lack of support or commitment to the program, saying it has existed since long before he became coach.
“I think it’s just more of a mindset. I think it’s from a long time ago. It’s just going to be hard to change,” he said. “It’s an atmosphere, it’s a climate, it’s hard to undo. To undo it, you’ve got to be successful, and to be successful you’ve got to have people helping you be successful. It’s almost like it’s a big circle, and you can’t get out of that circle.”
Casey athletic director Victor Black said he was not surprised by Stephens’ decision.
“He let me know early on that the possibility was out there that he could be looking to move, and I totally understand,” Black said. “He’s had some success ... and if he’s looking to move on, I understand that and certainly don’t want to hinder him from being able to do that, and I wish him all the best.”
Black said Stephens leaves the program better than he found it, particularly after the success of last season.
“He felt like if he left at the end of this year and made the announcement early enough, based on the success we’ve had, it would give an opportunity to get somebody in here who can carry on with the foundation that he’s (built) and maybe move us forward,” Black said.
Stephens said that’s one reason he decided to step aside in the wake of such a successful season.
“We’ve got eight starters back on (offense) and eight starters back on (defense), so it’s a good situation, hopefully,” he said.
Casey played its first football season in 1975 and didn’t have a winning season until 2000. Coach Steve Stonebraker left for Garrard County after that season, and Stephens, a 1987 Casey graduate who played for the Rebels, was promoted from assistant to head coach.
Stephens went 7-4 in his second season but wouldn’t have another winning record for eight years. Some of his teams took the field with fewer than 20 players, but the Rebels began preseason practice last year with more than 50.
He said it was difficult to tell those players last week that he was stepping down.
“It was tough on them. We’re pretty close, and I’m around them a lot, so it was pretty emotional, it was pretty personal,” he said. “They really took it hard for a couple of days, but they seem to be coming around now, and I keep talking to them about keeping their focus.”
Black said assistant coach Shannon Cain is running the team’s offseason program, and the search for a new coach is getting under way.
“We’re hoping, based on the year that he had last year ... that maybe we can generate some interest from around the state and maybe get somebody that’s a quality coach to come in and help our football program,” Black said. “Then again, your hands are also tied a little bit because of current budget situations with the teaching jobs.”
Meanwhile, Stephens, who also coaches softball at Casey, said he is looking at other coaching positions and said he’s willing to take a job as an assistant coach.
“I look forward to maybe doing something different,” he said. “It’s gotten to the point it’s hard to even enjoy coaching because there’s so much extra to do with it, and I’d like to go somewhere where I can enjoy the kids, enjoy what’s going on.”