By Joshua Price/Sports Editor
Lyle Darnell coached high school football in Alabama for 41 years, and wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The Arab native coached at nine different schools during his career. As a head coach at Hanceville, Thompson, Glencoe, Scottsboro, Etowah and Pell City, Darnell finished with a 204-77-6 record, including one state championship, numerous coach of the year awards, and one national coach of the year trophy. He was inducted into the AHSAA hall of fame in 1995.
Darnell attended Arab High School, where he played football, basketball, baseball and track under coach Tom Mehard.
“Back then, each school had two coaches who coached all sports,” Darnell said of Mehard. “Our choices were simple, we either worked, played ball, or both. Most of us did both.”
Darnell was a standout baseball and football player for the Knights, and accepted an offer from Auburn University to play football after graduating from Arab in 1952.
“Auburn offered me a scholarship to play football if I agreed to play at a junior college for two years,” Darnell recalled. “I went to Decatur, Mississippi and played one season at the junior college there. I came home during Christmas break after that season and Jacksonville State’s football coaches found out I was home and convinced me to comp play football for them.”
Darnell said the football offer from JSU was lucrative, but there was more to football that brought him closer to home.
“Auburn did not want me to play baseball when I got down there. I told the JSU coaches that I would come play for them only if they let me play baseball. They agreed, but told me if I didn’t start on the baseball team I would have to come to football practice. I made sure I was a starter!”
Darnell played football and baseball at JSU from 1953 to 1956.
“We had a great football team my [senior] year,” Darnell said of the undefeated Gamecocks of 1955. “We went undefeated that year and beat the University of Rhode Island, 12-10, in the Refrigerator Bowl.”
Darnell graduated with a degree in education from JSU in 1956. He was immediately recruited back to the gridiron, and made his Etowah County debut.
“Coach [E.C. “Baldy”] Wilson offered me a job as his assistant coach at Glencoe. I owe a lot to him because he gave me my first start in coaching, he opened the door for me.”
Darnell remained at Glencoe until he accepted the offensive coordinator job at Clay County High School in 1959 under head coach Billy Hugh Hudson.
“They played tough football down there and they still do,” Darnell said. “I felt that I was ready for a head coaching position, so I moved on.”
Darnell accepted the head coaching position at Hanceville in the summer of 1961. Darnell’s first tenure was tough, and finished 10-13-1 during the following three football seasons.
Thompson High School contacted Darnell in early 1964. Thompson had lost 33 consecutive games and was seeking a new football coach.
“The principal at Thompson called me and said he had gotten permission from my principal to talk to me about coming to Thompson and being the head football coach,” Darnell said. “He made a good offer and I couldn’t refuse it. They were in pretty bad shape when I got there, so I guess that’s how I got the job with no experience!”
Darnell coached two seasons at Thompson, going 5-4 in 1964, and 5-5 in 1965.
Darnell was contacted by Glencoe in early 1968 when longtime head coach Wilson decided to retire. Darnell took over the program, and stayed there for 12 years.
Darnell said Glencoe had a promising group of junior high players when he arrived.
“We had some good young kids at Glencoe my first year there,” the coach said of his future state champion team. “We really put a lot of effort and work into that group because they were the guys that would be coming up soon.”
It didn’t take long for Darnell to steer the Yellow Jackets in the right direction. Darnell led Glencoe to its lone state title in 1973, during which the Yellow Jackets finished 13-0.
“We won that championship because we had other kids that may have not had ‘the name’ but were good, tough football players that would hang in there and play hard every play of every game,” Darnell said of his team. “Jeff [Davis] could throw it, Greg [Davenport] could catch it, and Hal [Smith] could run it. We had an outstanding group of football players.”
Darnell quickly recalled the scores of most every game from the 1973 season as if they happened last week.
“We changed our game plan during halftime of the championship game against Florala. We were down 14-3 at halftime and they had tremendous speed. We decided to run traps on them and that opened it up for us. We won the game 25-14.”
Darnell said [Hal] Smith was one of the best players he ever coached.
“Hal was as good as they get. He was one of the fastest players I ever saw. He didn’t even play halfback his senior year because he hurt his shoulder. I put him at split end and he played with his arm in a sling. Auburn signed him as a defensive back and he played a good bit down there. He was a fast boy and I never saw anybody catch him. He ran as fast as he needed to run. To look at him you wouldn’t think he was that fast, but he sure could run!”
Darnell said the 1979 Yellow Jackets were also a great team.
“I thought we were gonna win the state in 1979, but fell a couple of games short. We were 12-0 when we went to Colbert County and they were just too fast for us.”
During those years, his teams were the most dominant in the county.
“Hokes Bluff and Southside were our biggest rivals,” Darnell recalled. “We beat them everytime we played them. We were 12-for-12 against both of them. If we played them in a jamboree game, we even tried to beat them then. I always got along good with the coaches out there. Cootie Reeves and I are good friends. Danny Payne was a great one too.”
Darnell said his Yellow Jackets dropped only one county game during his 12 years as head coach at Glencoe, a 13-6 loss at West End in 1974.
“[Mark] Nix was one of the best players I ever coached against,” Darnell said of the future University of Alabama fullback. “We just couldn’t tackle him that night. He was a great all around athlete.”
Darnell’s tenure at Glencoe was not only his longest, it was his most successful. He posted a 97-28-2 record in 12 seasons as head coach. Darnell left Glencoe for Scottsboro in 1980 to take over a struggling program.
“The superintendent called me and made me a huge offer, so I took it,” Darnell said. “They went 0-10 in 1979. We won nine games the first year and turned the program around.”
Darnell was named coach of the year in 1980.
“The Lord just took good care of me there that year.”
Darnell coached at Etowah and Pell City before returning to Scottsboro in 1987, where he retired prior to the 1990 season. Darnell returned to the sideline in 1991 as an assistant at Gadsden High School.
At the request of former Glencoe assistant Jeff Milwee, Darnell continued coaching.
“I helped Jeff at Boaz High School. I ran their offense there from 1993 to 1997.”
Darnell was and is considered one of the top offensive minds in high school football. As a head coach, he prided himself on his offensive capabilities.
“I always ran the Pro offense,” Darnell said. “We were ‘wide open’ before you were supposed to be ‘wide open.’ I believe you have to establish the run between the tackles before you can throw the ball effectively.”
Darnell said his offenses were successful because of his quarterbacks.
“I was always blessed to have great quarterbacks to lead my offenses. At Glencoe, I had Ed Lett and Jeff Davis, at Pell City I had David Gulledge, and at Boaz I had A.J. Milwee.
Lett and Gulledge played at JSU, Davis played at Ole Miss and the University of North Alabama, while Milwee played at the University of Alabama and UNA.
“Those type of quarterbacks allowed me to pass the ball when I needed to,” said Darnell.
Darnell had a reputation for turning struggling programs around.
“Every place I went was down when I got there. I guess I’m what you might call a ‘rebuilder’.”
The coach said there was no secret in his success.
“I always worked them [the players] hard. They played a little frightened and that made them play a little over their ability. I was tough on them but I never had one to quit on me. I have them tell me all the time how much they appreciate me working them so hard. I’m sure they didn’t like it that much back then, but that was just part of the game plan. That was just my philosophy.”
Darnell said he made the decision to be a coach early in his life.
“I thought a lot of my high school and college coaches and still do. They made a big impact on my life and my career. I decided early in life that I wanted to be a coach and it worked out for me.”
To the Glencoe populous, Darnell is a celebrity. The football stadium bears the name “Wilson-Darnell Field” in honor of himself and his first mentor.
Last year the coach suffered serious health problems.
“I went for my yearly checkup last August and everything looked okay. I was about to leave when the doctor told me to take a stress test. After looking at the results, the doctors said I had some blockage. So they did five bypasses. I didn’t even know I was sick! I worked all day the day before at the river carrying rocks to build a seawall. The doctor said I could have eventually had a heart attack. Fortunately they caught it early, and I am fine now.”
At the age of 77, Darnell is still very active. He spends his days fishing for crappie and bass at his river lot in Southside. He keeps up with high school football and his favorite team is still the Yellow Jackets.
“I miss it every year, especially the two weeks before the first game. I get miserable, but I just cope with it. I try to go and watch Glencoe play every chance I get. I missed last season because of my surgery, but I plan on seeing them play this year.”
Because of his age, Darnell insisted there was no chance for another return to football.
“I don’t suppose my time has really passed me on the field because I always did things that were somewhat ahead of my time. I enjoyed coaching and I wouldn’t have done anything else.”
It was good to catch up with Lyle Darnell.