ROCKY MOUNT — The last time Franklin County hired an assistant from Salem as its head football coach, the move brought the program unprecedented success.
Fifteen years later, supporters of Timesland’s largest high school are hoping for a repeat performance.
Wednesday, Franklin County introduced J.R. Edwards to run the Eagles’ football program, filling the vacancy created by the departure of Chris Jones following the 2014 season.
Edwards is best known for serving as the head coach at Hidden Valley from 2004-08, compiling a 31-23 overall record including a trip to the 2006 Group AA Division 3 semifinals where the Titans lost to Richlands.
For the past seven seasons, Edwards has been an assistant coach at Salem, helping the Spartans to the Group 4A championship game in December.
Edwards, 45, takes over a Franklin County program that is coming off three consecutive losing seasons including a 1-9 mark in 2014.
Franklin County went three decades without a postseason berth before the Eagles hired Billy Miles in 2000, and the former Salem assistant produced the school’s first playoff berth in 2002 and added two more in his six seasons.
Jones added more success, leading Franklin County to a playoff victory in each of his first three years beginning in 1999. However, in 2014 a brutal schedule limited the Eagles to a lone victory and the team dressed out just 35 varsity players at the end of the season according to athletic director Crystal Worley.
Now Edwards is charged with re-energizing the program on the field and in the stands at Cy Dillon Stadium.
“Our community supports us, and they will continue to support us … but I’m hoping with a strong football program we’ll get more of our community out than just the regulars we always get,” Franklin County school superintendent Mark Church said. “We want it almost to be standing-room-only supporting our team.”
Edwards was able to gain some perspective on Franklin County’s program since Salem played the Eagles on a home-and-home basis from 2009-14.
He sees similarities.
“It’s a one-school town,” Edwards said. “They have great facilities for their kids and they have great people. They’re very similar in the way they’re set up, and their demographics are very similar.
“I just always thought Franklin County just had some great-looking athletes. They were big. They had some speed. It was something over there that we were very excited about, that game. It was just a great atmosphere whether you were over at Salem or here.”
Edwards met with Franklin County’s returning players and distributed a breakdown of his offensive and defensive systems and terminology.
The new coach said he will run a “52” defensive and a multiple offensive based out of the I-formation. At Salem, Edwards worked with the Spartans’ defense from the sidelines.
“There’s probably a good chance I’ll be the offensive coordinator even though I’m a defensive-minded guy,” he said.
Edwards said he has complete control over the makeup of his coaching staff.
“I have a couple guys I have in mind that I want to give a call from the outside,” he said.
Edwards, who will teach strength and conditioning at Franklin County, said he will continue to live in Salem for at least two more years until his daughter graduates from high school. His two sons played football at Salem, which was the main reason he resigned at Hidden Valley after the 2008 season.
“My last year over there was when my son was a freshman [at Salem]. I missed about half his JV games because I was at my JV games,” he said. “As a father, I knew I’d never get that back. I stepped down, and as fate would have it two weeks later they had a position open.”
Edwards played football at William and Mary under Jimmye Laycock, graduating in 1991. He spent eight years working in retail for Kroger before beginning his coaching career at William Byrd under Jeff Highfill in 2000.
Edwards’ oldest son, Mic, plays football at Christopher Newport. Becoming a head coach again might mean missing more of his son’s college games, but Edwards could not wait.
Franklin County opens the 2015 season Aug. 28 at Liberty. Following road games at William Fleming and Pulaski County, the Eagles and Edwards will debut at home on Sept. 18 against Christiansburg.
“I did not apply for any other jobs,” he said.
“Part of my struggle was I’m going to miss my son in those last two years at Christopher Newport, but Franklin County is a place you want to be.”