By BLAKE MCCORMICK
Freeport, Fla. – In 1999, Jim Anderson, then a locally unknown, affable coach with a winning resume, applied for the head football coaching vacancy at Freeport High School. Former Principal Jim Hicks didn’t hire the coach who was two years removed from taking tiny Mayo-Lafayette to the Class A state championship game, but when the job became vacant again two years later, Hicks made the greatest acquisition in Freeport football history.
“Over the years, year in and year out, Jim Anderson has done more with less than any other coach in Northwest Florida,” said Hicks, who was also defensive coordinator for Jeff Webb’s Walton teams in the 1980’s. “Coach Anderson is a Bulldog through and through. He is respected by the community, and his players and coaches love him. He is a good man, and a good coach, period.”
The longest tenured coach in Walton County history is stepping down after 16 seasons with the Bulldogs. To put that in perspective, of the nine Freeport coaches before Anderson, only Tripp Hope (1994-1998) stayed more than three years. In terms of on the field accomplishment, Anderson took over a program that only garnered five winning seasons in 25 years of existence and only qualified for the playoffs twice, losing in the first round both years. Schools from all over the Wiregrass and east of the Big Bend area rushed yearly to try and schedule the Bulldogs as a probable win.
Anderson’s first team finished 4-6, losing three games by a touchdown or less. In a game against Baker, Freeport kept stride with the eventual district champions until a late interception in scoring position stifled the inexperienced Bulldogs’ bid at the upset. In a conversation earlier this year, Anderson pointed to that 28-21 setback in 2001 as a pivotal moment for his program. “We stayed with them and had a chance at the end of the game to win it. I saw we were heading in the right direction. I said after that game that I wouldn’t trade those players for anybody else’s, and 16 years later, I still feel the same way.”
Anderson’s next two teams posted back-to-back 9-3 records for the two winningest seasons in school history to that point, and ignited a football fervor in the town that was starving for gridiron glory. Also on display was the head coach’s offensive mind. Anderson used Josh McKay, a durable, strong quarterback, similar to how Tim Tebow was used fours years later at the University of Florida. Freeport’s offense would be turned into a balanced, multiple offense that was both fun to watch and effective. An offensive line specialist, Anderson made his teams earn their stripes by being technically sound up front, allowing his teams a chance to be competitive with teams who were physically bigger. Anderson’s in-game strategies would effectively waver depending on what the situation or defense dictated, or just an intuitive feeling the coach would get during the game. Niceville Principal Charlie Marello, who was Anderson’s defensive coordinator until 2010, spoke of his former football boss’s offensive aptitude. “He was tremendous at offensive scheming for an opponent and calling plays. I remember in 2002 after we had a goal line stand against Cottondale in the Homecoming game, he called back-to-back go routes from our 1-yard line. The first one was incomplete. When I heard the play call go in the second time, I thought he had lost his mind. We hit it for a 99-yard touchdown to Shaun Arntz.”
Caleb McCormick became an all-time great at Freeport from 2009-2012. He has played football the last four years at Tusculum College (TN) and will graduate in December. “We were always changing. We could run the spread and run-and-gun with Baker one week, then run the triple option and play ball control the next week against Northview.”
Just as impressive and important as his play calling, was his ability to impart his game plan to 14-18 year old players in a way they could apply it. McKay, arguably the best player in school history, talked about how his former coach’s ability to manage him, had a lot to do with his development. “I was really hard on myself if I made a mistake, but he was able to get me to focus and readjust. He was able to get the best out of somebody like me. He helped me play in an urgent situation without letting my adrenaline and emotions get out of control.”
Whereas legendary Panhandle coach Jeff Webb and regional vagabond Rob Armstrong departed Freeport after brief stints with notable success to take more prestigious jobs, Anderson turned down chances to take over other programs even with a rebuilding era likely on the horizon following the 2003 season.
Anderson was asked why he stayed. “Before I got to Freeport, I never stayed at a place longer than four years. It’s the people. It’s a great community. It’s just a great place to live.”
From 2004-2007, the Bulldog’s had an unflattering looking 15-25 record. But it was what Anderson was doing with the limited talent he had to work with that kept the program’s nose above water.
Steven Adams, who was a lineman for Anderson from 2001-2004, and was a successful walk-on player for Troy University, said Anderson was “his football father,” and added, “My senior year (2004 football season) we could have gone 0-10. We had a lot of injuries and had a player get arrested. Somehow, he got us to 5-5. He got a lot out of what he had to work with.”
Freeport would reap the rewards of Anderson’s patience during the ebb as the school would eventually embark on their greatest era of football. From 2009-2012, the Bulldogs posted four consecutive playoff appearances, two district titles, and fielded the best team in school history when the 2009 team went 11-2 and advanced to the Final Four.
Anderson likes to remind people of what could have been for that 2009 team. “If we had the rural classification like we do now, we would have won the state championship.”
Jones County Junior College quarterback coach, Cole Weeks, was the starting quarterback on that team and had the most prolific passing season in school history during that year. After graduation, he became a walk-on quarterback at Southern Mississippi. “I think the strongest statement you can make about him (Coach Anderson) was his ability to make the most out of the talent he had. I honestly don’t think anybody else could do what he did with us.
“I was either a freshman or a sophomore when Coach Anderson pulled me off to the side one day and told me what it would take to be a good quarterback. I couldn’t be late for meetings, I couldn’t be late for workouts. I had to go above and beyond in how I handled myself. My transition to Southern Miss was easy because whether I was the scout team quarterback, second string quarterback, or starting quarterback, I knew how to be a leader and handle myself.”
Chase Craig, an undersized lineman from 2011-2013, said it was Anderson’s attention to detail that made the biggest impact on him. “He taught me the right technique and to do the little things right. Let each and every single play come to me and use my knowledge of the plays and the system, and the small things I learned through camp and individual workout sessions that he taught me to do, to get better leverage on a bigger guy. Just do the little things right to make every play work.”
For the first time ever, Freeport fans had become accustomed to winning, as enthusiastic crowds packed Bulldog Stadium, and their opponents visiting seats, every Friday expecting victory. In 2012, Freeport advanced all the way to the Regional Final for the fourth year in a row and barely lost in overtime to Northview, the eventual state champion. Freeport faithful reasonably believed winning ways would continue into 2013 and expectations only heightened when the Bulldogs toppled Walton in the spring game. Then, just a few weeks before the season opener, Freeport’s incredibly gifted starting quarterback elected to not play his senior season.
“It was a devastating blow,” mentioned Craig. “It was no secret that he was our offense. We didn’t have the talent to overcome that. Morale really did drop.”
To make matters worse, the Bulldogs lost two additional starters to season-ending injuries in the first game of the season. Anderson found his program amidst an unexpected rebuilding year as his team limped through a winless season.
According to Craig, Anderson remained poised. “In the face of adversity, Coach Anderson is the man you want steering your ship. Even if it’s sinking, he’s going to keep it afloat as long as he can. All those other years I was there, he had older guys to work with. My senior year, I think he had about 75 percent underclassmen, and the rest was juniors and seniors. That season showed me, he’s going to keep going, he believes in his system, he believes in what he knows. He kept us afloat. He was always about the next play, the next game, the next pad up. Coach Anderson’s philosophy wouldn’t change if we were 10-0 or 0-10.”
Weeks, who was part of an inexperienced 2-8 team in 2007 before building up to the state semifinal team in 2009, had a similar remembrance of Anderson. “One of the absolute most important things a player needs from their coach is consistency. Coach Anderson expected the same things to be done whether we won two, five or 11 games.”
Freeport rebounded from the winless debacle of 2013 with respectable campaigns the next two seasons. But, the landscape of Class A football in the region had changed. Traditional powers, Baker and Port St Joe, re-emerged as mainstay dominions, while arch rival South Walton began hitting their stride under head coach Phil Tisa. Freeport didn’t have the horsepower to keep up and the playoffs eluded Anderson’s teams his last four seasons. Still, the Bulldogs appeared to be stretching their win-loss records about as far as they were capable. Jeff Myers, who coached against Anderson’s teams from 2004-2015 as an assistant at South Walton and is now the offensive coordinator at St Teresa High School in Decatur Illinois, mentioned as much. “Even my last few years at South Walton, when we had a significant advantage in talent, I always knew we would have to play as well as we were capable of playing to beat a Jim Anderson-coached team. His kids were going to do things right and play hard for four quarters. He got the most out of the teams he coached at Freeport. To me, that’s the measuring stick of a good coach. I have the utmost respect for him and the job he did there.”
McCormick had the same sentiments. “I think the most important trait he had as a coach was his uncanny ability of how to use the athletes he had, and how to get everything possible out of them.”
Anderson’s final team was, in many ways, a vintage Anderson team. Prepared and hardworking enough to win the games they should while beating a couple of teams that were more talented. Victories over playoff-bound Cottondale and a thrilling 21-20 victory over a Mayo squad that was 5-0 going into the game are games that could have been losses under many other leaders and helped Freeport claim a winning 6-4 season.
South Walton Head Football Coach Phil Tisa mentioned, “Even when he didn’t have the most talented teams, I always thought he got his players to play above their heads. That’s something I’ve admired and tried to learn from and replicate.”
While football is obviously important to Anderson, it’s his spiritual walk with Christ that appears to be his driving force in life. The 30-plus year coaching veteran certainly had earned the right to use his last postgame meeting with his team to trigger nostalgic, self serving emotion. Instead, after his team’s 56-7 victory over Rocky Bayou, Anderson told his team the importance of having a relationship with Christ and urged them to always treat others the way they would want to be treated.
“At one time or another in our lives, the Lord is going to ask “Do you believe?”, and we have to say “Yes” or “No”. We’re not going to get an unlimited number of opportunities. If we put our faith in Christ, things will be fine. May not be perfect all the time, but it will be perfect in the long run.”
It’s a side of the coach that senior Zack Seay says, is typical. “Coach Anderson is one of the greatest men I’ll ever know. He taught me lessons about my faith and I admire how he was never afraid to talk about Christ. I’m really going to miss him.”
Senior Anthony Rucker recalled how his coach was there for him after his sister unexpectedly passed away during this past football season. “We were playing Mayo-Lafayette. I walked into the locker room earlier that day. He asked me if everything was OK and asked what was going on. I told him what happened to my sister. He prayed over me and it was amazing to me that a coach would have feelings for his players like they were his own child.”
After 16 years of producing almost all of Freeport’s greatest teams and molding several others that appeared to have little to offer into respectable squads, Anderson says he needs a break from coaching. He said he might get into sporting good sales, something he did during a two-year hiatus from coaching right before coming to Freeport and might even coach again one day.
But, whatever the future holds, Anderson’s patience and loyalty to a school that is not known for producing optimal athletic talent, and winning despite of it, entrenches his legacy at Freeport of being its greatest football coach of all time.
By BLAKE MCCORMICK