Few coaches in Waterloo High’s football history have been able to leave the program during a time of sustained success.
Brad Palmer appears to be an exception.
Palmer decided he will not return as head coach next fall after six years of rebuilding a Waterloo football team that historically has been an afterthought.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Now just seemed to be the time to do it,” Palmer, 50, said Friday. “I didn’t want to walk out on anything that wasn’t in good shape, and I think it is.”
Palmer's record at Waterloo is 27-36, though that understates the program's recent success. Palmer's teams in his first two years were 1-19. Since then, Waterloo is 26-17.
Waterloo has made the playoffs each of the last three years. Since 1990-92, the last time that happened, Waterloo did not qualify even once. (From 1996-05 the school did not field a team.)
For five straight years before Palmer arrived, Waterloo had never won more than two games in a season. His first team was 0-10 and his next team was 1-9.
“The first couple years it’s hard to get that mentality out of kids, because they go in thinking they don’t have a chance,” he said.
In 2016, his third season in charge, Waterloo missed the playoffs with a 2-4 record in Class 1A, Area 16 games but showed improvement with a 5-5 mark overall. Waterloo went 4-6 the next year but 3-3 in the area to make the playoffs.
The program’s growth became more obvious over the past two years, going 9-3 in 2018 and 8-3 this past year.
Mars Hill, the 2018 Class A state champ and 2019 runner-up, is the only team in Class 1A, Area 16 to beat Waterloo over the last two seasons.
Waterloo also earned its first playoff win in team history in 2018, beating Hubbertville 20-15 before dropping a road game to Spring Garden the next week.
Palmer’s son, Bryce, was a standout quarterback for that 2018 team. (His older son, Trey, was a senior on the 2014 team.)
Brad Palmer said Bryce was part of a strong graduating class of athletes, and the class older and class younger than Bryce’s were strong as well.
Linebacker Colton Vaden and running back Junior Summerhill made the Class 1A all-state team in 2019. QB Bryce Palmer and receiver Christian Irons made it in 2018. Before that, Waterloo had not had an ASWA all-state player since the 1980s.
“Especially (at) 1As, there are going to be ups and downs,” Palmer said, noting as long as you get at least six or seven players from each graduating class, you have enough of a roster to be competitive.
“People here understand that,” he said. “ … Our community understands that. It makes things real easy.”
Waterloo benefited from some good transfers over the last couple years — notably Vaden, who played the last two seasons, and Summerhill, who played last year — but Palmer pointed out Waterloo’s growth started in earnest in 2016.
“That was all the kids that were already there,” he said.
Palmer said he will continue teaching business education and health at the school and continue coaching softball.
He said the head football coach position was posted online this past week. The next coach will take over a program coming off its two highest-scoring seasons in school history.
“The football here has become a program instead of just ‘Well, it’s football season,’” Palmer said.