Vance era comes to a close after 40 years on the gridiron
By Keith Sparks
For 16 years, Panther football has been synonymous with the Vance name. Head Football Coach and Athletic Director Jerry Vance’s career at Liberty Hill has spanned across two different high school campuses, has included two state championships, and has earned him a 155-46 overall record.
On Tuesday, Vance’s reign came to a close as each and every one of Liberty Hill High School’s coaches was called into a meeting, leading many to assume that the rumblings of Vance’s impending retirement were coming true. They were right.
Vance, 66, announced his retirement on Tuesday morning, ending a 40-year coaching career that began in 1972 at Travis Junior High in Amarillo.
The decision to retire, according to Coach Vance, was not an easy one. In the midst of a sleepless December, he and his wife finally decided that it was time.
“It wasn’t a decision that was… some people say it’s overnight,” Vance said. “My wife and I prayed about this for a long time. I didn’t get much sleep during December. It was not an easy decision, but when we looked at some things, like age for one thing, we’re still able and active enough to do a lot of things that we want to do, and I didn’t want to pass those things up.”
Although his retirement announcement is new, Coach Vance already has an idea of what he’s going to be doing with his newfound free time, including fishing, spending time with family (his granddaughter Ruby, in particular), and making some updates to the house that he and his wife have shared in Liberty Hill for 16 years.
“I’d like to have the opportunity to fish,” Vance said. “I have some friends that fish in Canada every year, so I may have a chance to do some of that. I’ll have a chance to spend more time with my granddaughter, and a chance to put some things right in the house that I’ve let go for 16 years, and just take a step back, take a breath from there and see where it goes.”
Coach Vance plans on staying in Liberty Hill for the foreseeable future, noting that his current 16-year streak is the longest that he and his wife have lived in one place since they were children.
Vance has one son who lives in Austin, and another in San Marcos, which serve as two major reasons why he and his wife have no reason to leave Liberty Hill anytime soon.
Coach Vance will remain on staff as Athletic Director until district officials are able to fill the head coaching position, which is posting immediately, according to Superintendent Rob Hart.
Dr. Hart said Vance met with him last week to inform him of his decision to retire, and the two decided to keep it quiet until Vance could announce the news himself to coaching staff and students.
“I wasn’t shocked,” Hart said. “I anticipate it every year about this time when he comes over to meet with me about things, but this time it was real. He will be missed. I had a great working relationship with him. He was a great Athletic Director and football coach. I enjoyed spending time with him.”
Hart said Vance’s retirement will be effective at the end of the school year, but he hopes to fill the position within the next two months.
Coach Vance plans on stepping away from the athletic office as soon as his replacement is in place, in order to give the new hire as much space as he possibly can.
“I’m going to stay as long as they need me,” Vance said. “As soon as they find somebody that they want, I will pack this stuff and be out in a heartbeat, because when a new person comes in, this needs to be their property, their office. It needs to be their program. It doesn’t need to be mine, and I don’t need to be hanging around saying ‘Well, you need to do this, you need to do that.’ It needs to be their program, and they don’t need the ex-coach looking over their shoulder.”
Hart described Vance as “a very humble man” who commonly attributed his success to simply being “blessed.”
“He coached kids, not football,” Hart said, “and he’s the kind of person whose presence ekes leadership. I’ve never worried about our athletic program for one day with him leading it. He believed strongly that he wanted kids to participate in as many athletic programs as possible. It wasn’t just about one thing, but being involved in as many things as possible.”
Hart said Vance’s success with Liberty Hill’s football program brought positive attention to the school district and the community, as a whole.
“The public perception that we’re winners, and we do well in all that we do has become truth,” Hart said. “He helped us get the reputation out there that this is the place to be.”
After coaching for 40 years, serving as a junior high coach, defensive coordinator, head coach, and just about everything in between, Vance has met thousands of student-athletes along the way. His relationships with those students over the years are what he’ll miss the most moving forward.
“Oh, that’s easy,” Vance said in response to a question about what he’ll miss most. “The relationships with the kids. I know a lot of people say that when they retire, but there’s a special bond there. I’m going to really miss them being able to tell me, ‘Hey old man,’ and me saying, ‘What?!’ There’s just a special relationship. A lot of those kids, I spend more time with them during the summer, and during the fall, than they spend at home, because of being up here in the weight room and all of that.”
Vance’s career has taken him from Amarillo, where he got his first coaching job in 1972 at Travis Junior High after playing collegiate football for two years at West Texas State University, to Artesia, New Mexico, Alice, Texas, Dimmitt, Texas, back to Hobbs, New Mexico, back to Texas again at Reagan County High School, then to Gregory-Portland, San Marcos, and finally Liberty Hill.
Though it’s difficult to sum up four decades of coaching memories in a matter of minutes, Vance tried his best.
“There’s snowstorms in Dimmitt, when you punted the ball, it stopped right there where it hit,” Vance recalled. “I can remember those days. I can remember Gregory-Portland when we were 0-4, and the Head Coach saying, ‘If we don’t win this one, you’re gone.’ We’re down 21-0 at half, and come back and win.”
As far as his Liberty Hill career is concerned, Vance said he has so many fond memories that it would be impossible to list them all, but was able to quickly bring a few to mind.
“Obviously, the state championship games stand out in your mind,” Vance said. “Things like the Beeville game, where we came from behind and won on an extra point that we run back for two points.
The Brownwood game, where we came back from two touchdowns. The first semifinals game against Jasper, where we’re down 21-0 and we’re going in to score, with no time left, to tie it up. Those are some things that stick in my mind.”
For Coach Vance, those memories aren’t necessarily about the final scores, the individual performances, or even the game of football, but about seeing what his players are made of.
“For me, it’s about how those young kids rise to the challenge,” Vance said. “People don’t think that those young people can do great things, and when they’re given the opportunity, these kids in America can rise up to do anything they want.”
Vance announced his retirement to the coaching staff and his players separately on Tuesday. Both announcements were difficult, he said, but the emotions he felt prior to telling the students were unmatched.
“Telling the coaches was hard,” Vance said, “but when those kids walked in the auditorium today, for me to tell them, that took me a couple or three minutes to gather up before I could say anything.”
Coach Vance said there was some emotion from the players during his announcement, especially from the seniors, and the juniors that expected him to be back for their senior season. His hope, however, is that they’ll move on from his decision as quickly as possible.
“Kids are the most resilient things in the world,” Vance said. “You’re going to think there are things that would just devastate them, and for a moment, for a day, maybe two days, they will be devastated, but man, they bounce back so fast. It won’t be a week that I’m gone before they’ll forget who I was.”
While forgetting Vance is not likely, the Panthers will have to move on from the Coach and the system he’s worked so hard to perfect over the past 16 years. On the other hand, Coach Vance may have some difficulties moving on from the game.
From focusing 100 percent on football for 40 straight years to walking away from the game completely, Vance does expect a sort of adjustment period to take place.
“This stuff is addictive,” Vance said. “The adrenaline rush, the working so hard and seeing it pay off, and then knowing you’re going to get to go back. Yeah, there will be some adjustment there.”
Vance didn’t completely rule out a future return to the game of football at some point in retirement, though he wouldn’t get into specifics.
“If opportunities present themselves, sure, I’m not opposed to that,” Vance said, “but I want to take some time off first to just kind of get away from… I just want to get away for a little bit, and then we’ll see what happens.”
Those that have lived in Liberty Hill for 15-plus years can attest to the growth that the community has seen during that time. The potential growth is something that attracted Coach Vance and his wife to Liberty Hill 16 years ago when he decided to take the position of Head Coach.
“We saw it coming a long time ago,” Vance said of Liberty Hill’s growth. “I told my wife when the opportunity came up to take this job, that this was a place that was primed to blow up. Georgetown was coming out, Leander was coming out, and it was a time that I said, ‘When it hits, it’ll be a big deal.’”
In addition to winning hundreds of football games while changing thousands of lives along the way, Vance played a major role in the school district’s introduction of a massive new football stadium in 2013, which he had a hand in designing.
Panther Stadium, according to Coach Vance, serves as a fond reminder of his success at Liberty Hill and the growth of the community as a whole.
“One of the dreams you have as a coach is to be able to build a facility,” Vance said. “When Dr. Hart gave me a chance to design this and be in on building this thing, I guess that’s a culmination of all this growth for me. It’s been pretty cool.”
Vance’s 155-46 overall record and two state championship rings since taking over as Head Coach at Liberty Hill speak for themselves. His legacy, however, will be about more than just football.
“I hope they know that I’m a Christian right off the bat,” Vance said regarding his legacy in Liberty Hill, “and that I’m a family man. That I work hard and demand excellence, and we get it. I think the overall program, from basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, football, cross country, you name them, you go down the row, how competitive we are with the whole state. I hope that somebody will say, ‘You know, he had a hand in making that great for everybody. He gave the coaches what they wanted, and stepped back and let them do their jobs.’”
Coach Vance echoed Dr. Hart’s statements about Liberty Hill’s current reputation as an athletic powerhouse of sorts, compared to what it was when Vance arrived, explaining that the current state of Liberty Hill athletics is one of his proudest accomplishments.
“When I first got this job, people would say, ‘Where’s Liberty Hill?’ Now they don’t have to, because now we’re mentioned in the same sentence with Abilene Wiley, with Argyle, with those schools like that that have been consistently successful in all their programs, and I think that’s one thing that I’m very, very proud of.”
Whoever follows in Coach Vance’s footsteps as Liberty Hill’s next Head Football Coach will have some massive shoes to fill as Vance will forever be remembered as a Texas high school football legend.
Managing Editor Shelly Wilkison contributed to this story.