Liberty looks close to home for new coach

LIBERTY — Although candidates applied from around the country, including as far as Arizona and New England, the Liberty High School administration had to look no further than its own campus to fill the Red Devils’ vacant football head coaching position.
After a pool of 83 initial candidates was narrowed to 10, then trimmed to three, Liberty officials announced LHS social studies teacher Kyle Stewart was named the Red Devils’ head coach at a Tuesday morning conference at the school.
Stewart is a 2002 Easley High graduate and served as an assistant coach under the last three head coaches for the Green Wave, including this past season under first-year coach Chad Smith.
Stewart is tasked with resurrecting a Liberty program that has struggled in recent seasons, riding a 24-game losing streak before winning in the final game of 2010, but he is no stranger with quick turnarounds. Prior to last season, Easley High had won just once in its last 29 games, but in 2010, the Green Wave won nine games and advanced to the second round of the state AAAA playoffs.
LHS athletic director Sherry Haithcock said that experience was a major plus for Stewart coming down the home stretch of the coaching search.
“In talking with our finalists, we talked with people who had been part of turning programs around,” LHS athletic director Sherry Haithcock said. “Coach Stewart understands what it takes to get from one point to the next point. He understands the hard work it takes to turn things around, both from the players and the coaches.”
Stewart said one of the biggest things he will work to change quickly is attitude.
“It’s easy to be negative, especially when things aren’t going good,” he said. “When something meets you, how are you going to respond? Are you going to have good character and stand up and fight it or are you just going to lay there and let it stomp on you?
“Players reflect the attitude of the head coach, so if I have a positive attitude and my assistants have a positive attitude, they’ll get a positive attitude. If we’re working hard, they’ll be working hard.”
Following the departure of former coach Curtis Middleton after this past season, Liberty administration formed a search committee for his replacement that included staff, students and community members, including former Red Devil players and former Super Bowl head coach Sam Wyche.
“We had a lot of candidates apply for the job,” LHS principal Randy Gilstrap said. “To me, it was just amazing that we found (a new coach) in our backyard.”
“We had some very qualified candidates,” Gilstrap said. “The committee was just thoroughly impressed with coach Stewart and the plan that he had.”
Although he has been coaching at Easley for a number of years, Stewart actually began teaching at Liberty in August as a result of staffing realignment in the school district. Gilstrap said that experience working with Liberty students may have given him an edge over other candidates, and rightfully so.
“That probably worked to his advantage, because we’ve been able to see him in the classroom,” Gilstrap said. “He’s done a great job in the classroom and he’s a great teacher. I think he’s developed a good rapport with the students.”
“He loves our kids,” Haithcock said. “He’s been in our building since the beginning of the school year and has really bought into Liberty.”
Haithcock stressed Stewart’s youthful energy as another major positive of his hiring.
“He is just so enthusiastic, and that enthusiasm is just going to carry over to our kids,” Haithcock said. “That’s what we really need right now — to get everybody pumped back up and ready to go.”