Story by: Griffin Pritchard | Publisher
Photos Courtesy of Coach Blackwell
CENTRAL ALABAMA SCOREBOARD OFFICE — Aubrey Blackwell is no stranger to hard work and since being named the head football coach and athletic director at Benjamin Russell High School, he’s mired himself in the task of rebuilding the Wildcats athletic program to that of prominence.
“I know Benjamin Russell can be back at the top of 6A football in Alabama,” Blackwell said.
It’s going to take some work to get back to that point, as he inherits a Wildcats football program that’s now the equivalent of a 42-year-old twice-married overweight man, that peaked in high school and is constantly reminiscing about 2001 and that last championship run..
Last season Benjamin Russell finished 2-7. They were 5-5 in 2019; 6-5 in 2018 and 7-4 in 2018.
The decline is real and Blackwell addressed it in his first conversation with the team.
But why try to paraphrase the coach’s message?
Blackwell: “When I got my first opportunity to talk to the Wildcats, my statement was simple. From this moment on, we will fight and work to restore this program where it belongs, at the top of 6A. I promised them I would love them, push them, work them, and help guide them. I promised them that if they wanted it, in this program they will have the opportunity to be the best version of themselves. That if they would trust me and our staff, that we will put them in situations to be successful and to be prepared for their next steps after high school. I assured them that we will care for our facilities and for the things provided for us. We will fight daily for each other, the Wildcat Family will go before ourselves, and it is now time to go to work. Losing seasons are unacceptable as a Wildcat and the playoffs will once again be our comfort zone.”
He gets it. He understands what Wildcat Pride and the culture of winning means, and due to his infectious positivity – interest in Wildcats football has near doubled and continues to grow as the weeks pass by until Spring Football kicks off in May.
To put into perspective how far off the championship path Wildcat football has strayed, their last championship season was in 2013. In the years leading up to that, Benjamin Russell football (for better or worse) won area and region championships on the regular: 1986, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2012 and 2013 according to Alabama High School Football History (ahsfhs.org).
The program has shown the ability to bounce back – it did recover from the Mike McCombs years (2007-2008 where the Wildcats were a combined 12-10, 9-3 and 3-7).
“There are outstanding people here.”
Blackwell – who is well traveled as a coach and, had Montgomery Catholic a dropped pass in the end zone away from upsetting perennial small-school power Fyffe in the 3A State Championship Game – is no stranger to Alex City and brings an excitement to the town that’s lacking at times.
Blackwell: “Growing up, every summer I spent a large amount of my time living on Lake Martin with my grandparents, Doyle and Edna Blackwell. Alexander City has been a second home of mine not just spending the time we did here when I was growing up, but I was fortunate enough to play college baseball at Central Alabama Community College for coaches Ronnie Baynes and Don Ingram in 2000-2002. My two years at CACC were a load of fun and full of blessings with great people, leaders, and teammates.”
Blackwell was part of the CACC baseball squad that advanced to the semifinals of the NJCAA D1 World Series. He was also a part of that 2002 team that spent a glut of the season ranked No. 1 in the nation before losing in the regional championship with a 47-7 record.
Blackwell: “So, first, this has been my home before. My career goals have always been to coach at a high level in a one school town that shuts down on Friday nights to support their team.”
That used to be Alex City.
Blackwell: “My wife, Brandi, and I have wanted to be in a place like Alexander City to raise our two children, Will (11) and Kayla (9). I know the city, education, and location were everything we wanted in raising our kids. The legacy of the outstanding men that have headed this program is something I am truly honored to be a part of. The prestige of Wildcat Pride is something that I appreciate, know, and will work hard to protect everyday. I have massive shoes to step into and I will work diligently everyday to represent the great coaches that have come before me. There are outstanding people here. I believe in my leaders, Dr. Keith Lankford and Dr. Anthony Wilkinson and want to help build upon their vision for the future of Benjamin Russell Athletics.”
“We need to get our edge back..”
Since being hired away from Montgomery Catholic in late December, Blackwell has embroiled himself in improving the football environment at Benjamin Russell; going so far as to lead a remodel of the existing weight room. One thing he said during a phone conversation sticks out – “a part of building a culture of success is the ability to visualize that success.”
There’s also a need to be goal driven. Blackwell was asked to outline his Year One, Year Three and Year Five goals for Benjamin Russell High School football:
Blackwell – Year One: “We need to get our edge back. We are a blue collar program and we need to play that way. I want to see improvements with how we compete, how we approach the game with our effort, and how we find a way towards success. I believe we can turn the tables here quickly. We have set the standard that every year, the playoffs are in our reach, and we do not have losing seasons.
Blackwell – Year Three: “I expect us from that point forward to always compete for a Region Championship. By then as well, we will be entering the hallways of our new high school and athletic facilities. Our covered turf practice area will be a great place for us to improve and these young men will have instilled in them the toughness and tenacity that we will expect on the field.”
Blackwell – Year Five: “We expect to constantly be in the top 10 in 6A. Year in and year out. Restoring the incredible legacies set forth by the blood, sweat, tears, and grit that the alumni and coaches of teams past have shown in the Maroon and White.”
“We have lots of hard work ahead of us.”
Blackwell – in taking over the Benjamin Russell program knows that achieving those goals will not come overnight; nor within the next two weeks.
“We have lots of hard work ahead of us and I never want to get in a rut of constantly comparing (the BR program to Montgomery Catholic) because the situations are completely different.”
Blackwell inherited a Knights program that – from 1999-2020 – had been through six coaches and (until he took over in 2015) had a total record of 56-105. When Blackwell left in December to join the Wildcats – he’d led the Knights to a 54-19 mark and had outscored the Catholic opponents a combined 2,150 to 1,177. During their 2020 run to the championship game Montgomery Catholic was 8-2 in the regular season and had outscored their opponents 321-163 and that includes a 63-34 loss to Pike Road in Week 1 and shutout wins over Dadeville and Childersburg.
Blackwell: “My last meeting with my boys at Catholic was bittersweet and very emotional. Those young men fought tirelessly everyday for each other and the program. We all had our hearts ripped out in the State Championship, playing so well yet coming up short. The thought of doing that again to them within a month’s time was very hard and with the relationships that me and my family built there, it was by far the hardest decision of my life. The program is in the best hands it could have been in. My Assistant Head Coach for all six years there is getting his opportunity for his first head coaching job. He deserved it! He has the same loving passion for the kids like I do, and the program will continue to thrive and succeed under his direction and the athletic directors; Daniel Veres.”
Again – it’s not lost that 3A football and 6A football are two different realms in the Alabama High School Football multiverse. But – the point is – the guy has a track record of success. And that’s one of the reasons it was a tough decision for him to leave the program he’d spent half a decade building into a playoff power.
Even with spring football months away, Blackwell has had the Wildcats in the weight room building that foundation, that core strength, they will need to lift the Benjamin Russell High School football program back to prominence.
Blackwell: “I have been spending most of my time these first months 1) building our players up and spending as much time as possible training them in weight room and in agility 2) working hard in the community to get the excitement back up, gather support, tell people my vision and goals for us, and to raise some funds so I can provide the best possible for our young men and coaches 3) Painting, cleaning, organizing, and caring for the current facilities that we use. The potential has a great ceiling. We have tough kids here that are very hungry for success. I am excited about the youth coming up in our younger grades, and we will return several players this year that have seen a lot of experience on Friday nights.”
“I have been a program builder my whole career.”
To understand where someone is going, you first have to understand where they have been. Blackwell is well traveled and has spent time under the learning tree of some great minds in the sport of football. Montgomery Catholic was his first head coaching job and that turned out well for him. But how did he get started?
Blackwell: “My very first coaching job was an assistant baseball coach at the University of Montevallo working for Greg Goff. We were able to turn that program around in two years to send the team to its first ever College World Series in 2006. We built a new stadium, vastly improved the weight room, locker rooms, and field surfaces. After a runner up performance in the Super Regionals in 2007, I followed Coach Goff to Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC. A D1 school that was in the Atlantic Sun Conference, now in the Big South. The program was coming off of a 7-41 season and the facilities were sub par for any college at any level. I spent three years there with Coach Greg Goff. I kept the fields, taught health, recruited nearly 15 states, and was the Strength and Conditioning Coach. We worked hard daily to build the program, improve the facilities, raise money and support, and Campbell has won two out of the last three Big South Conference Championships, Coached by my staff mate, then assistant Justin Haire. They boast one of the best baseball facilities in Mid-Major Baseball.
“After my son was born, my wife and I made the decision to move back to Alabama to be closer to family and I longed to be back on the football field, which is where my passion lies, so I accepted a position at Saint Paul’s Episcopal for my former Head Football Coach and Mentor, Jimmy Perry. We were very successful in my three years there, winning the region each year, and improving our rounds every year. My third year at St. Paul’s was now Head Coach, Steve Mask’s first year. I was fortunate to work with some of the best coaches in the state at St. Paul’s and I learned so much about the game, especially the X’s and O’s from OC Shane Sullivan. I accepted my first Offensive Coordinator role at Saint James School in Montgomery, going back to work for Jimmy Perry and returning to the city where I grew up and where my parents and grandparents all resided. In my second season there, we won the school’s first region championship.
“Saw multiple kids go on to live their dreams at the next level, and I gained invaluable experience being an assistant head coach under my mentor, Coach Perry.
“In January of 2015, I accepted my first head coaching job at Montgomery Catholic. Taking over a program that had not had a winning season in eight years. I was able to put together a staff, working with Daniel Veres, one of the best and underrated AD’s in our state, and we started from scratch. In my six years, we were 54-19; two region championships, two runners-up, and we made the playoffs every year after my first year. In that time I was able to raise over $150,000 to improve facilities, equipment, and staff. In 2020, we opened a 7.5 million dollar athletic facility where I was fortunate enough to be on the fundraising committee. All of my experiences, from the four different college coaches I played under to the outstanding men I have been able to work with, have given me an outstanding foundation to build young men on. I have seen winning and program building at all different levels, and each head coach did it his own way. The awesome variances of coaching styles allowed me to develop mine with lots of different examples. I know and understand gathering communities and alumni bases to fight for improvement and support for programs.
“I am blessed to get the opportunities to build young men everyday. I believe in discipline, responsibility, loyalty, pride, and integrity. I work daily to find multiple ways to teach my young men those same values. I believe that in those lessons that football allows me to teach, and to constantly relate our successes and failures to life lessons is something that I am passionate about and that helps us develop quality young men and tough football players.”
Ready to run through a brick wall yet?
Blackwell will make his coaching debut this fall when the Wildcats take the field in August.
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