The thought of leaving football had occurred to Mt. Blue coach Jim Aylward before, but always as a snap response to a rare moment of frustration, and gone as quickly as it appeared.

“I think in the middle of every year, during a tough loss, every coach thinks ‘This could be it,'” he said.

This time, however, those thoughts weren’t fleeting. They lingered after Mt. Blue’s last game, remained through the fall and persisted into winter. Aylward began to ask himself the question, and when he found himself hesitating, he knew the answer.

“As time went by, you start thinking about the next year and the things you have to do and the work that goes into it. All of a sudden, you say ‘Okay, can I 100 percent commit myself?’ ” he said. “And if it’s even 99.9, you owe it to the kids to step aside.”

That rationale guided Aylward to retire after three seasons with the Cougars, a decision he made formal in conversations with athletic director Chad Brackett and superintendent Tom Ward last Thursday. The Mt. Blue stint followed a long career with Mountain Valley, during which the 55-year-old Aylward guided the Falcons to four state championships and became one of the state’s most decorated coaches.

Aylward said the decision wasn’t an easy one, but one he had taken time to consider and with which he had become comfortable.

“It was tough. That’s why I took so long after the season,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I was positive about it. It’s what I’ve done pretty much my whole adult life.”

When he realized that he didn’t have the enthusiasm about preparing for a new season he used to have, he knew it was time to step away.

“At that point, you’re doing it because it’s what you do and not because it’s what you so passionately want to do,” he said. “I think everybody knows when it’s time, I think everything has a shelf life, and I kind of felt it was time.”

Aylward notified Brackett of his decision two weeks ago, and he met separately with Brackett and the Ward last week to inform them.

“I’ve been leaning toward this most of the winter,” he said. “I felt that I owed it to Chad that if I was going to make this move, I wanted to give him a fair chance to have the spring to try to find a replacement.”

Brackett said Mt. Blue posted an opening for the head coaching job the next day, but didn’t make an official announcement regarding Aylward’s retirement.

“Out of respect for coach, I just let him handle it his way,” Brackett said. “I knew people would figure it out sooner or later.”

Before heading to Mt. Blue in 2014, Aylward coached at Mountain Valley for more than two decades and used his intensity to turn the Falcons into a juggernaut in Class B. Mountain Valley went to 17 regional championship games and eight state finals, winning championships in 2004, ’06, ’08 and ’10.

After taking over at Mt. Blue, he took the Cougars to the playoffs his first two seasons, reaching the B North semifinals in 2015. He had a medical scare in 2015 when he experienced chest pains while teaching at Mountain Valley, missed a game and was hospitalized with a collapsed lung, but Aylward said his health currently is fine and that he’s looking forward to spending time with family, friends and pursuing some of his favorite activities.

“I’ve been fly fishing my whole life, and I’ve never been fly fishing after August,” he said. “There are just a bunch of things I’d like to do. … I’ll keep busy. I promise you that. I have a lot of things on my to-do list, and I’m actually very happy about moving forward.”

Football isn’t necessarily out of the picture for Aylward. He’ll stay off the sidelines this year, but he said trying his hand as an assistant later on is an option.

“I would consider working as an assistant down the road, but it’s down the road,” he said. “I’d like to have some time away and get a hunger back.”

He leaves the game with a plethora of memories from fielding one championship-caliber team after another, but Aylward said the players will be what he remembers most fondly from his time on the sidelines.

“Obviously winning championships is great, but I’ve had the chance to coach some great kids,” he said. “I really like to consider myself a players’ coach. I think, over the years, people saw me on Friday nights being a certain way, and I don’t think people understood that … I try to separate the players from the kids when we’re on the field and off the field, and I hope the kids always thought that I was supportive and treated them fairly.”

Brackett said Aylward didn’t come across any other way.

“The way that he treats his student-athletes and the people around him is unbelievable,” Brackett said. “He’s an intense coach, but … he’s a coaching legend. He was before he got to Mt. Blue, and the imprint that he has put on Mt. Blue will be there forever.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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