By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
SPRINGFIELD – Basketball wins and losses have blurred over time for Effingham County boys basketball coach Jake Darling, but not the day he walked his 1-year-old son Jacob through the Rebels’ lockerroom at Kennesaw State University after a 2013 Final Four state playoff game.
“We passed Jay Wright and Jakeenan (Gant) and I remember saying, “You’re going to be as good as these guys someday,” ” Darling said. “My kids have grown up knowing me as the coach. The gym is where we’ve always felt comfortable.”
Now dad has a new job – Rebels athletic director.
“I’m going from leading a few assistant coaches and 30 players (in the basketball program) to 22 sports,” Darling said. “It’s the natural progression of my career.”
The job opportunity opened when former Rebels’ former AD Matt Huntley took a job to head Crossroads Academy, an alternative school in the county.
Darling played basketball at Berry College. He was an assistant basketball coach at South Effingham for four years, then an assistant under Donnie Arrington at ECHS for two years before taking over the Rebels’ head coaching job during the 2014-15 school year.
Darling’s teams won 17 or more games six times during his eight-year tenure and he compiled a 130-88 overall record.
But there was a calling for a new challenge.
“In the back of my mind, there was always that (thought) ‘maybe I’d like to be athletic director’ – take on that position and lead a department,” Darling said. “Take those things I’ve done as a coach and take them school-wide.”
Unfortunately, the district does not allow school administrators to coach.
That made the decision difficult. Darling gave up hands-on interaction with a program he built and players he nurtured, an interaction with a sport that always intertwined with something deeper than a result on a scoreboard.
During the Christmas holiday break, he scheduled a tournament for ECHS in Rome.
It gave Darling a chance to share his personal side – where he earned a degree and played at Berry College, where he met his wife Hannah.
“It was a tough decision – should I or shouldn’t I apply for (the athletic director’s job) in the first place,” Darling said. “Basketball was a big part of it. My family was a big part of it.
“When I first became a head basketball coach, I thought, ‘We’re going to run this offense, we’re going to have these types of players,’ But once you get in there, the Xs and Os became less of a priority than ‘Am I building men? Am I building a culture people want to be part of? Am I building leaders for the future?’ That became my focus, more so in the last four or five years.”
Behind the scenes in the summer, fundraising for ECHS athletics is paramount. Darling now becomes the voice for 22 sports.
“I’ll always be a basketball guy, but being in south Georgia, I know the importance of football,” Darling said. “There will be a lot of focus on football early on, but part of the job is giving equal attention to all sports. I’ll put attention into the non-revenue sports, like coach Huntley had, and figure out ways to support them and give those athletes and coaches the best chance to succeed.”
And from a new vantage point, Darling will be keeping an eye on his basketball players – on and off the court.
“I’m still going to be around,” he said. “It’s not like I’m going anywhere.”