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New Bears coach is all about approach

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 6, 2002

BROOKSVILLE -- John Wilkinson and Lance Jenkins had a little deal. First one to get a head coaching job hires the other.

That's why Jenkins didn't have to think about his answer when the phone rang last spring. His childhood buddy announced he had been named Central's head coach and was looking for a staff.

Jenkins, then the offensive coordinator at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., had held the same job with the Orlando Predators in the Arena Football League in 1994, had been a graduate assistant under Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier, but was more than willing to switch to defensive coordinator.

"The deal was, we'd work for the other until they got their feet wet," Jenkins said.

As one of Wilkinson's oldest and closest friends, Jenkins doubts the first-time head coach will need him very long. It's all about approach, and whether he's organizing a team photo or starting an afternoon practice, Wilkinson comes across as serious.

The 32-year-old doesn't intimidate with physical stature or overwhelm with verbage, but he gets his points across, usually the first time. And seemingly no one is immune. As Central's players and coaches sat broiling in their bleachers, waiting for a team picture to be snapped, only assistant coach Mike Ellison was late. As Ellison pulled up in the parking lot, Wilkinson bellowed, "Waiting on you, Coach."

"He's a little boisterous and he demands perfection," Jenkins said. "He brings a sense of nastiness."

Wilkinson learned to expect perfection as a player and coach for Gerald Odom, a 2000 inductee into the National Coaches Hall of Fame now at Cocoa High. Wilkinson played on the offensive line (Jenkins was a receiver) for Odom at Merritt Island and became offensive line coach there in 1995. After working as an assistant offensive line coach at the University of Massachusetts in 1999, Wilkinson rejoined Odom as running backs coach at New Smyrna Beach in 2000. He was the Barracudas' offensive coordinator and line coach last year.

That team eliminated Central 40-6 in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs last fall.

The Central position was only the second for which Wilkinson, a University of Florida graduate, had applied. He credits Odom for helping him get it.

"My whole football career I owe to coach Odom," Wilkinson said after his hire. "Every job, he's been responsible for me getting it."

Steve Crognale had resigned as Central's coach Feb. 22 to pursue a master's degree in administration. Wilkinson, who works in a drop-out prevention program at Central, became the first of Odom's proteges to earn a head coaching job.

"He's real intense as far as coaching," Odom said. "A real intelligent guy who loves the game of football and has a passion for it."

Not surprisingly, Wilkinson has adopted many of Odom's routines in his first months at Central.

Central players, especially the older ones used to Crognale's system, had to adjust to a new regimen quickly. One of the first snags occurred when star running back Tim Gaynor broke a series of team rules, quit the team briefly, but was reinstated with a suspension.

Gaynor is back and in step with Wilkinson's orders. "He's a good guy," Gaynor said of Wilkinson. "In my opinion, he's a good coach. He's about business. He thinks everything through. We have our fun, but he knows when to be serious."

Wilkinson's expertise and interest will always be focused on the offensive line, Jenkins said. It will be needed this season as Central replaces four starters there.

"His offensive line is definitely going to be solid and be mentally tough," Jenkins said.

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