FARMINGTON — Closer to home. Changing priorities. The desire for personal growth and a new challenge.
The reasons most of us would list when leaving one working relationship to pursue another are no different than the ones that charted Jim Aylward’s future as a high school football coach.
As of Tuesday night, it’s official: Aylward, 52, is leaving Mountain Valley, the program he started and built into one of the most successful in the state, and taking over the equally tradition-rich system at Mt. Blue. The RSU 9 superintendent appointed Aylward as only the Cougars’ third head coach in the past 43 football seasons.
“I deliberated long and hard, and for a variety of reasons it’s a good move for me,” Aylward said.
It is not unusual for an elite coach in Maine to leave what he has built at one school and tackle another, and sometimes even another beyond that.
Consider the history of John Wolfgram, who owns a record 10 state titles at four different schools – Madison, Gardiner, South Portland and his current home of Cheverus. Locally, Bill County led Leavitt to two Class B championships in the 1990s before relocating to Lewiston, where he is now well into his second decade.
But few if any have spent more than a quarter-century at their first stop, winning four state championships and 200 games before making the switch.
“I’m not looking forward to the goodbyes, but I feel great about the last 25 years here,” Aylward said.
Mt. Blue officially is Aylward’s fourth coaching stop.
He was an assistant at Oak Hill before his first head coaching position with the long-suffering Mexico program.
Just as the Pintos were making significant progress, the Mexico and Rumford school systems merged in 1989. Aylward took over that project, minted as the Mountain Valley Falcons, and began building a dynasty.
Mountain Valley reached the Class B championship game in its second season of 1990, losing to Orono.
Two more defeats followed against Orono in 1994 and Belfast in 1996 before the Falcons broke through, beating Winslow, 21-7, in 2004.
From there, even-numbered years were especially good to Mountain Valley. The Falcons beat Winslow again 2006, Morse in 2008 and Leavitt in 2010 for four state titles in seven seasons.
Justin Staires (2008) and Cam Kaubris (2010) were named finalists for the Fitzpatrick Trophy their senior campaigns.
Aylward’s teams reached the Class B West final in 17 of his first 23 seasons, winning eight.
So why leave now?
“It’s time for me to blaze a new trail, and frankly I am both scared and excited,” Aylward said. “Just what I need to be the best I can be.”
Travel is no minor factor in the transition.
Aylward lives in Jay with his wife, Mountain Valley field hockey coach Melissa Forbes. The round-trip commute from their home to Farmington is 24 fewer miles than the drive to and from Rumford.
Mt. Blue’s refurbished school and newly redesigned, on-campus athletic facility are a big draw, he said.
An equally important landmark: The nearby University of Maine at Farmington.
“I’d like to take (graduate) courses to perhaps be an administrator seven or eight years down the road,” Aylward said.
The 2007 Mountain Valley squad that lost a narrow decision to Gardiner was featured in the documentary “The Rivals,” one that since has been featured in regular rotation on the Smithsonian Channel and Maine Public Broadcasting.
It celebrated Mountain Valley’s fast-growing rivalry with Cape Elizabeth, focusing on their two titanic games at the end of that season. Aylward’s wit, wisdom and commanding presence at practices and games were a main attraction.
That personality had its detractors in the community. They gained their strongest foothold in the late 1990s, when a small but persistent movement nearly cost him his job.
Players, including former ones, stepped forward to voice their support, and Aylward stayed on. In “The Rivals,” Aylward admitted that he had modified his coaching style after the experience.
Aylward coached more years at Mountain Valley after that controversy than before it, evolving into an icon.
Continuity in coaching played a huge role in the Falcons’ success. In the tri-county region, only Lisbon’s Dick Mynahan has enjoyed a longer current run as head coach. Aylward’s top two assistants, Steve LaPointe and Rick White, have been mainstays.
He went about the difficult business of informing his coaching staff over the weekend and addressed Mountain Valley players on Monday.
“The people who really care about me see this as a chance to grow as a person and professional,” Aylward said. “The people who are disappointed, I take as a compliment.”
Mt. Blue’s situation has been just as stable and successful.
Ray Caldwell led the Cougars from 1972 to 1992, winning three Class B titles. Gary Parlin took over in 1993, guiding Mt. Blue to a Class A East championship in 2005 and a Class B state crown in 2012.
Mountain Valley’s declining enrollment has been felt in the win column. The Falcons endured their first back-to-back losing seasons in school history in 2012 and 2013, winning a total of four games. All the while, the Falcons have competed in a higher class than their enrollment dictates, mostly to appease traditionalists who recall the town’s heyday as a Class A and B power.
There is ongoing uncertainty about the pulp and paper industry that provide most of the community’s economy. Talk of an RSU 10 consolidation with neighboring Dirigo has come up repeatedly in recent years.
Certainly there are fewer obstacles at Mt. Blue. Aylward can put his stamp on the program without having to rebuild it.
“Mostly, having just turned 52, how many more opportunities to challenge myself will I get? I need to step out of my comfort zone to grow at this point,” he said.
Aylward is mystified by the interest in his move as a news story, to the extent that he has wondered aloud to his wife about it.
The couple arrived at one conclusion. “It’s cold,” Aylward said.
Reminded by a third party that he is a movie star, the coach chuckled.