BIDWELL, Ohio — His efforts were always in the best interest of the kids.
This decision was too.
After seven seasons, an improbable playoff appearance and a 26-45 overall mark, Jerrod Sparling is stepping away as head football coach at River Valley High School to spend more time with his wife, Brittany, and their three young children — all of whom are under the age of five.
“It was the easiest decision that I’ve ever made, but it was also the most gut-wrenching decision that I’ve ever made,” Sparling said. “I have no doubt that stepping down and investing in the lives of my kids is something that I want to do … and it’s time to do that.
“I’ve spent the last seven years caring about everyone else’s kids, and it was worth every minute in building up the River Valley football family, but I have three wonderful kids that are all under the age of five. You just don’t get this time back and coaching takes up a lot of family time, so it was time for me to make this move.”
Sparling — who played football at Ohio University under current Bobcats coach Frank Solich — accepted the RVHS job in 2011, inheriting a program that had only 10 wins in its previous seven campaigns.
More importantly, RVHS had never won more than six games in any single season since opening its doors in the fall of 1992, nor had it posted a winning record on the gridiron since the 2003 campaign before Sparling’s arrival.
In fact, the Raiders surrendered at least 300 points in six of the seven seasons before Sparling’s tenure — as well as allowing at least 30 points defensively in 48 of those 70 contests.
Sparling’s first three years didn’t fare much better as RVHS mustered just five wins and gave up 30-or-more points in 21 of those 30 contests.
Sparling noted that he was in fear of not being brought back after the 2013 season, but Gallia County Superintendent Jude Meyers, RVHS Principal T.R. Edwards and RVHS Athletic Director Richard Stephens all believed in his direction — realizing that the varsity lineup had only a handful of seniors and plenty of underclassmen.
That support at the top was very important in what ultimately transpired, according to Sparling.
“I was fortunate to have a supportive group of administrators and community leaders that believed in me enough to get this thing turned around, especially after going 5-25 my first three years,” Sparling said. “Mr. Meyers, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Stephens all believed that we, as a program, were doing the right things with a very young roster. We took our lumps headed into 2014, but it eventually paid off in a big way.
“I give a lot of credit for our turnaround to the administration at River Valley High School because they allowed us to change a lot of things for the better, and I’m truly thankful for the opportunity that they provided me. I definitely feel that the program is in much better shape for the next coach coming in.”
The first big breakthrough came that next fall as the Raiders went 5-5 while surrendering only 276 points on the season — their lowest total in a decade.
The Silver and Black followed with history in 2015 after posting a program-best 7-4 overall mark, which included the school’s only playoff appearance — a 34-0 loss to eventual Region 17 finalist Zane Trace in the Division V opening round.
Despite heavy losses to graduation, the Raiders followed up with a 6-4 mark in 2016 — marking the third consecutive season in which RVHS had a .500-or-better record.
Athens — with 23 victories — was the only Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division program to have more overall regular season wins than River Valley over that three-year span. The Raiders also tied for fifth, tied for second and placed third in league play during those respective campaigns.
The Silver and Black finished this past season with a 3-7 overall record, including a 1-5 mark in TVC Ohio action. It was also the first time in four years that RVHS allowed more than 276 points in a season.
Though he never won a league title and finished 19 games under .500 at RVHS, Sparling did amass a successful run over his seven seasons as head coach.
Before Sparling’s arrival at River Valley, the Raiders totaled exactly 26 wins over the previous 14-plus seasons — starting with a Week 10 victory over Gallia Academy (21-0) in 1996.
Changing that culture proved to be the hardest of all the obstacles that Sparling faced during his tenure … but he is pleased with the final results.
“Honestly, the hardest part of the job early on was off the field. There was no structure in the program, top to bottom, so getting everyone up to speed and on the same page was one of the biggest challenges,” Sparling said. “Equipment was another story. My first year, which was 2011, we had helmets manufactured in 1998 and uniforms that were falling apart. It really just wasn’t set up to be successful.
“To see where the program is now, I’m not sure that wins and losses tell the story of how far we’ve come in seven years. We have new uniforms and updated equipment, we learned the value of hard work and what it takes to be successful, and we’ve seen the benefits of investing the kids. We were all able to change the culture for the betterment of the players and their experiences.”
When looking back on how far the River Valley football program has come in seven years, Sparling is quick to acknowledge his staff, the parents and the community for helping make his run a successful one.
As he has often noted, it takes a group of like-minded individuals to make great things happen.
“I honestly don’t have a lot of regrets, although hind-sight is 20-20 about how a game here or there could have played out differently. It was a tremendous experience for me as a first-time head football coach and I cannot say enough about the people in the community,” Sparling said. “We were able to come together and make it work for some really magical moments with that program, which was something that a lot of people didn’t think could ever happen. It wasn’t always easy, but we stayed the course as a family and have some lifelong memories because of it.”
Though winning consecutive Ohio Valley Bank Community Bowls against in-county rival Gallia Academy did come to mind, as did the 2015 victory over Athens, Sparling’s greatest memory at River Valley clearly came on Nov. 6, 2015 — the night that RVHS appeared in its only playoff game.
And, as Sparling noted, that positive memory still resonates with a lot of Silver and Black supporters — and will for a while.
“The best memory I’ll have of my seven years is seeing the place packed with fans in silver and black, when it just hadn’t been that way for so long,” Sparling said. “I still get emotional in thinking about coming out of the locker room at Zane Trace for that playoff game. Just seeing our fans in our colors and how many people from Gallia County came in support, that was probably the one moment that sticks with me most.
“I know there are also a lot of people that enjoyed being part of that night. It’s a memory the whole family enjoys.”
Sparling submitted his resignation as football coach on Friday, Nov. 10. The Gallia County Board of Education has not yet been in session to officially accept the resignation.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.