VALDOSTA -- Valdosta High School's national search for its next football coach was reflected in a list of three finalists for the position.

A list of the finalists was released by the Valdosta City Schools Tuesday by its attorney, Gary L. Moser, in response to an open records request made by The Valdosta Daily Times.

Rick Darlington, the head football coach at Apopka (Fla.) High School, was selected to be the 13th head football coach at Valdosta High during Thursday's executive session of the Valdosta Board of Education. He was selected by a unanimous vote by the School Board, Superintendent Sam Allen announced Thursday night.

The other finalists listed Tuesday were Kevin Wright, head football coach at Warren Central High School in Indianapolis, Ind., and Matt Brunson, head football coach and athletic director at Crestview (Fla.) High School.

Darlington told The Valdosta Daily Times on Tuesday that he accepted the job Thursday night after a phone call from Allen. He attended a coaching clinic with staff members in Atlanta over the weekend, and said he delayed publicly confirming his hiring so he could address his Apopka players Monday morning before leaving for his introduction to the Valdosta community Monday night.

All three finalists listed their current principals as references.

Allen said Thursday night that the finalists' names weren't being released in part to protect the unsuccessful candidates.

"They're not being released primarily for their own protection," Allen told The Valdosta Daily Times. "On many occasions, if we released the names, we would be putting them at risk with their present employers.

"If you worked for me, and I heard that you had applied somewhere else, I would be inclined to help usher you out the door, because that says you're looking to move on. All these candidates said they were very happy with where they were at, but that this is Valdosta, and that's why they were applying."

Moser says state law does not require a school system to release names of finalists for this position, but David Hudson, an Augusta attorney who is considered an expert in Georgia's First Amendment laws, says it does.

An advisory committee unanimously chose the three finalists. VHS Principal Dr. Thomas Craft recommended Darlington in a Feb. 20 letter to Allen.

"I believe Coach Darlington possesses all of the traits inherent in a great coach," Craft wrote. "I hope that his tenure will be long and successful at VHS."

Craft recommended Darlington begin work on March 17. Darlington said Tuesday he wants to begin work March 10.

"It is in the best interest of Wildcat Football that our new coach acquaints himself to the players, parents and assistant coaches as soon as possible," Craft wrote.

The letter was released as part of the open records request.

Darlington, 37, would not say Tuesday how much Valdosta is paying him. However, The Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel reported Tuesday that he would double his salary from Apopka "with reports from Valdosta indicating he will receive a new truck and an annual salary between $80,000 and $90,000."

Coach Mike O'Brien, 55, who was fired by the board, was being paid $82,210 for the current school year, according to records released by the school system.

Brunson is a 1992 graduate of Troy State University with a bachelor's in education. He received his master's degree in 2000 from the University of West Florida, also in education.

After assistant coaching at his alma mater, Baker (Fla.) High School, he was head coach at Vernon (Fla.) High School and Crestview.

Wright is a 1987 graduate of Western Kentucky University, majoring in

government. He received his master's of education from Indiana Wesleyan

University in 1994.

He had coached at Warren Central since 2000. He was also a head coach at Frankfort (Ky.) in 1991, Noblesville (Ind.) in 1992-98, Trinity High in Louisville (Ky.) in 1999. He was also a varsity assistant at North Central High in Indianapolis from 1987-90.

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