LAWRENCEBURG, Ky. — The twists and turns of life’s journey are rarely the same as the plans we have made.
After leading Patrick Henry High School of Glade Spring, Va., to a 13-1 record and a berth in the state Class 1 semifinals, Palmer decided to pursue other opportunities, but could not have known what the next chapter in his life would hold.
Just ask Mark Palmer.
“I had 32 years of teaching in Virginia so I ended up getting retirement,” Palmer says before a hint of a chuckle. “Looking at my goal and my daughter’s goal, we were going to try to go south towards beach life.”
He’s ended up at Anderson County, almost smack dab in the middle of Kentucky and about 600 miles from the nearest ocean. And he’s mighty glad to be where he is.
“I decided to get out of the way and not do what I wanted to do but do what God wanted to do,” Palmer says. “This job came open. My wife is from eastern Kentucky, so I applied. I did some research on the school. I did some research on the area and it seemed like a great place to live. The football program here has tradition.
“After I went through the interview, I had a good feeling about the situation and was hoping I would be given the opportunity.”
And even though he’s leaving behind a program that advanced to the Virginia Class 1 semifinals last fall, Palmer knows he’s now in charge of another program with strong tradition. He replaces Mark Peach, who had been the winningest coach in Anderson history and had led the Bearcats to three district titles, two regional crowns and a state runner-up finish in 15 years.
Palmer tries to live his life in accordance with his deep Christian faith and firmly believes there is a reason he’s closer to bass fishing and water skiing than listening to the waves crashing. “This was God’s plan,” he says. “He’s let me bounce off a few walls when I didn’t get my way.”
Palmer explains that back in the spring, he had three simultaneous job offers. “We prayed about it and prayed about it and thought this was where God was leading us,” he says. “We turned down the other offers and accepted this job. It just felt right, so we chose here once God gave us the opportunity.
“I think God put it on our hearts to be here.”
At Anderson County, Palmer intends on doing some of the same things he’d done at Patrick Henry and two other head coaching stops in southwestern Virginia.
“In 1990, at the ripe age of 24, I took over at Ervinton High School, which is the school I graduated from,” he says, adding he already spent two years at the school as an assistant coach. “I spent eight seasons there. I got kind of burned out and took a two-year break. I came back at St. Paul High School, a public high school in St. Paul, Va. I was an assistant coach there for two seasons and then took over as head coach for eight seasons.”
His football philosophy is power-oriented with a play-action passing attack on offense and a 3-4 defensive scheme that emphasizes pursuit. But he says the bedrock of success is much more basic.
“At the parents meeting (before conditioning began last month), I told them we are trying to hold young men accountable and teach them all the things we are trying to teach them. As far as success goes, I really believe that if you take care of the little things like that, the stuff on the field takes care of itself. I told the guys I want them to have fun and give their best effort.,” he says.
“ If they give me their best effort, the stuff on the field is going to take care of itself. They can control two things: their attitude and their effort. If they do that, I have gotten to the point that I understand and that I don’t get too upset over a loss or too excited over a win.”
A graduate of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where he played football for a year, Palmer says being a solid role model for his players and students is the most effective way for his Christian witness to shine through.
“First and foremost, I am hired to be a teacher at Anderson County High School,” he says. “I am fortunate enough to be the head football coach. What I try to do is in my daily walk lead by example…That’s the best witness you can give: Loving the kids, holding them accountable, treat them the right way. They will notice something different. At some point, outside of school, they may give you the opportunity to share.
“I am not a preacher. I am a football coach. But I hope they see God is in my actions from the way they see me in public, from the way I treat my wife and my daughter and the respect I show the fans and the officials and the players. That is what I hope to get across.”
During our 45-minute conversation, Palmer often came back to the concepts he referred to as “those fundamental principles of life.”
And even though a Christian teacher is limited in how much he can share his faith while on the job, Palmer says those principles are universal.
“I am here to coach football and I am here to be a teacher,” Palmer says. “I am here to be a role model. I don’t think anyone would disagree that we want young men to be hard-working. We want young men to be responsible, accountable and men of integrity. Those are all character traits that I think every parent would want their son or daughter to have.”
Palmer’s faculty responsibilities will include credit recovery and strength classes but he knows all eyes will be on what he does on Friday nights. And he knows that despite going 4-7 last year, Anderson finished at 10-1 in 2018 and went 78-42 over the last decade.
“In the state of Kentucky, high school athletics is something they take very seriously,” Palmer says. “I think this state understands the importance of high school athletics and the importance of providing young men and young women the opportunity to further their education and to have those great experiences. It’s a big deal and I want to be part of that.
“The community here has been overwhelming in its support in reaching out to my wife and I and just helping us in answering questions and pointing us in the right direction. Everyone has been super nice.”
Palmer has undoubtedly heard about Friday nights in Lawrenceburg being a happening and that the Bearcats have traditionally had a big following wherever they go. But the COVID-19 pandemic might have other ideas about getting on the field this year. Anderson is scheduled to open the season at home against Spencer County on Aug. 21, but nothing is certain just weeks in advance.
Palmer has yet to fill out his coaching staff, is guiding the Bearcats through socially-distanced workouts, something new to all involved. Palmer says Neal Wells, Hunter Lilly and Joe Rose return from last year’s staff and a former Anderson assistant, Robert Meacham, has returned to the Bearcats.
Palmer says attendance at conditioning workouts “has stayed consistently high. The young men are working hard and they seem to buy into what we are bringing to the table. I have told these young men, and I told my daughter, ‘You are living through history.’ They can tell their kids or grandkids, ‘Hey, I went through that thing in 2020’ because one day this is going to be history.”
Anderson sits in one of the strongest districts in Class 4A with perennial powers Boyle County and Lexington Catholic along with an improving Bourbon County. In addition, the Bearcats take on another of Class 4A’s best, Franklin County (11-1 last year), Class 3A power Bardstown (10-3) and Henderson County, which went 8-4 in Class 6A last season.
Still, Palmer is anxious to see his first Anderson team in action. “If we can get on the field to play, I think we will have a really solid football season,” he says. “I think we will be fun to watch.
“It’s going to be a challenging schedule but we are huge up front.”
Seniors Darian Dearinger (6-3, 260, OL-DE/LB) and Ryan Stratton (6-6, 350, OL/DL) lead the returnees and Palmer is excited about the potential in several new players.
But the Bearcats must find a new quarterback after the transfer of three-year starter Jagger Gillis to Boyle County and the graduations of Zach Labhart and Kynan Russell, who combined for more than 1300 yards on the ground.
Palmer’s approach will likely be the same.
“From Monday through Thursday, I prepare the young men as a coach and do the best that we can,” he says. “If Monday through Thursday, they work their behinds off and on Friday night we play well, but lose, I will be disappointed but I will go home and go to bed and sleep that night.”