At 58 years old, Jim Garfield said he thought the opportunity to serve a school district as its director of athletics had probably passed as the 2021-22 school year got underway. At the time, he had spent more than 30 years in education and was entrenched as the assistant director of athletics for Lubbock ISD.
But when a conversation with now-retired Abilene ISD Executive Director of Athletics Phil Blue last fall turned from potential football playoff sites to Blue’s impending retirement, Garfield was intrigued.
“We were on the phone talking about potential playoff games, and Coach Blue told me he was going to retire,” said Garfield, who began his new role in Abilene on May 2. “I said, ‘Phil, you’ve got (Assistant Athletics Director) Del Van Cox down there and he’s as good as gold.’ I didn’t know I was on speaker phone and Del Van answered and said he was good with what he was doing and that I should look into this job.
“I knew if I went after this position, I would have someone with me in Coach Cox who is like-minded,” Garfield said. “When it all came about earlier this spring, it was like when you have a great game plan, and everything is just laying out in front of you and opening up like you hoped and planned that it would. It’s been like that from the very beginning of the interview process through right now.”
Garfield emerged from a group of three finalists in the spring and was hired as Executive Director of Athletics in March and began working in Abilene on May 2. When introduced to the Board of Trustees at its March 7 meeting, Garfield showed off his trademark excitement, immediately jumping into “coach mode” when addressing the board and those in attendance.
“We’re going to be about the kids academically and athletically,” he said that evening. “We’re going to take them places they’ve never been before. We’re going to give them the leadership skills they’re going to need to become great citizens. And, finally (slapping the podium for emphasis), we’re going to play for district championships and state championships, and we’re going to do it together.”
That last part of his thoughts from that evening – “we’re doing to do it together” – has been Garfield’s emphasis since he arrived in Abilene. With AHS and CHS now both in Class 5A (AHS in Division I and Cooper in Division II for football, but in the same district in all other sports), he knows the competition between the two schools will be spirited. However, he believes it’s a competitive spirit that will be good for both programs.
“When you have a multi-high school district, you always worry about how everyone is going to play with their toys, so to speak,” Garfield said. “But what I’ve seen from campus administration and the coaching staffs at both high schools and all four middle schools is that it seems like everyone is a family, and we all want both north and south to be successful.
“A rivalry is a rivalry, and that will take care of itself,” he said. “But I want everyone to embrace ‘One Town, One Family, Team AISD’ so that we’re all riding for the brand on the shirt. The ‘A’ at Abilene High and the Cougar head at Cooper means something when they roll into town or when other teams come here to compete. What it means to me is that our opponents are going to get the best effort there is in the state of Texas because the brand – the whole thing – in the Abilene ISD is solid.”
To make that happen, Garfield is building on what Blue started during his time in AISD. He’s got a sidekick in Cox who has served not only in an administrative role but as the offensive coordinator and then head football coach at AHS, helping lead the Eagles to some of the most successful seasons in program history.
In a hectic two-plus months on the job in which he’s already led in the hiring of four head coaches at the high school level, campus coordinators at middle school, and helped in the hiring process for middle school assistants, Garfield said he has found a foundation already in place that doesn’t need much tinkering.
“In working with our campus principals and campus athletics coordinators, I’ve felt a smooth transition,” he said. “That says a lot about the leadership of Phil Blue, and it says a lot about the leadership on those six campuses. We have some very strong leaders in those spots who understand you can’t accomplish anything by being on your own.”
Working with Cox has been exactly what Garfield thought it would be.
“That guy is golden,” Garfield said. “We’re very similar; we’re coaches doing administrative stuff now, but we still have that coaches’ mentality. We understand what goes on throughout the day in a coach’s life: teaching classes, covering classes, and doing everything it takes to get a team ready to play. We haven’t forgotten that, and neither had Phil, and that’s why things are really solid in the Abilene ISD.”
For Cox, working with someone daily that he’s worked with and competed against over the last several years is energizing.
“Coach Gar is highly respected in the coaching and AD profession, and I’m excited to be able to work with him,” Cox said. “It’s only been two months, but it’s been a pleasure to finally get to work with him inside our district.”
When asked how he would describe his style, Garfield said “excitable.”
“I get excited during competition, and I get fired up,” said Garfield, who coached football at both the high school and collegiate levels during his career. “I’ll be at games and matches, so I’ll be visible. That has already been happening here, so our coaches and programs are going to continue to feel the support they need. Everybody has their job and their assignments, and it’s my job and Coach Cox’s job to maybe take some of those duties off their plate so they can focus on teaching and coaching.”
Abilene High head football coach Mike Fullen, who served on the advisory committee during the hiring process, said he has already seen that excitement from Garfield.
“What immediately jumps out at you about Coach Garfield is enthusiasm and passion,” said Fullen, who is entering his fourth season as the Eagles’ head coach in 2022. “He is very passionate, and he’s been great to work with. He listens and takes things in and finds a solution. Something that stuck with me from the first day I met him was when he said he’s a ‘fixer.’ If things need to be addressed, I believed he’ll be the kind of person that will find a way to fix it, build it, and embrace it.”
Garfield wants to see participant numbers at both the middle school and high school levels increase in all sports and wants to see students enjoying the whole process of what it takes to be a student-athlete.
“No matter what sport it is, you’re always challenged to be better than you were the previous day, so it takes work,” he said. “I want to see our kids at all levels enjoying it and being positive when they’re working. But I’m a competitor, and I want our kids to compete. There’s a reason we keep score. But I always want it to be ‘we’ and ‘us.’ I want us to take paths to success as Team AISD.”
And that mission has been clear to everyone who has been around him.
“He’s a winner, and he expresses that,” Fullen said of Garfield. “But it’s not just winning on the scoreboard; it’s winning with all of our students, coaches, and AISD brand of athletics. He will be an advocate for our student-athletes and our coaches. He has been there, knows the struggles but also knows the rewards of what a strong athletic community can do for the AISD family.
“He is what I like to refer to as a ‘fox hole guy,’ “ Fullen said. “He already appears to be someone that you want with you when things are tough. I think he and Coach Cox are going to be a dynamic duo in this district. Team AISD is about to take another huge step to success.”