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You've come a long way baby!

Excuses, excuses, excuses. Hillsborough County had plenty of them in 1984 for its awful football programs. Since the players in this year's senior class were born, those excuses have been replaced by wins, wins, wins.

By SCOTT PURKS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2002


Excuses, excuses, excuses. Hillsborough County had plenty of them in 1984 for its awful football programs. Since the players in this year's senior class were born, those excuses have been replaced by wins, wins, wins.

TAMPA -- Kids these days ... they have no idea.

When this senior class was born (1984-85), Hillsborough County football was entering an era that was -- and one can't emphasize this enough -- awful.

Ask Hillsborough High coach Earl Garcia about that era and he turns up his nose as if you had hung a rotten mullet around his neck.

"Ohhhhh," Garcia groaned. "It hurts to think about it."

The worst of times lasted eight years, from 1986 to 1993, a span in which no Hillsborough public school won a playoff game. In 1988 none of the 18 schools made the playoffs.

Theories, of course, flew far and wide: "More new schools splits up the talent," and "Too many kids have to work these days," and "County centralized funding straps us," and "We're not paying coaches enough so the good ones are leaving the county for other counties," and ...

The losing continued.

Polk, Manatee and Sarasota counties kept bashing Hillsborough's poor, little squads. Against out-of-county schools in 1987, Hillsborough County went 12-24 (.333). In 1988, Hillsborough's teams went 11-26 (.297). .

In county? Crowds dwindled and football players hid.

Consider the case of Armwood's Sean Callahan at his first offseason workout as the Hawks coach. It was 1990 and Armwood was coming off an 0-10 season.

Callahan said he put up fliers around school, made announcements over the intercom, told dozens of players face-to-face when to be there.

"Then I'm all ready," he said. "I'm standing there with my whistle around my neck, my Armwood football T-shirt on my back and my clipboard in my hand. And then, two kids show up.

"Two. That's it. Just me and two kids.

"I never felt so dumb in my life. And get this, one of the two kids was three minutes late, so I was ticked off about that.

"Sometimes I can't believe I survived those first five years. "You had to keep telling yourself you're doing this to enrich young lives. You had to keep doing that because apathy was everywhere. Apathy surrounded you, from the county's administration to the players. You honestly didn't know if some of your starters would show up on Friday night."

Garcia, meantime, said there were few things worse than traveling south to face any Bradenton or Sarasota schools, particularly "The Big Three": Manatee, Southeast and Sarasota Riverview. At one point in the early 1990s, The Big Three's coaches had a combined record of 89-3 against Hillsborough teams. They had also won six state titles and played in the state championship game 12 times since 1983.

"Traveling across the (Skyway) bridge to play anybody was a fate worse than death," Garcia said.

He recalls one Friday night in 1988 at state-ranked Sarasota where his Gaither Cowboys were visiting. The stands were packed, the air was balmy, the band was playing . . .

Oh boy, was the band playing.

"Every time Sarasota scored, the band played Anchors Aweigh," he said. "By the end of the game the band members had to put ice packs on their lips because they were worn out.

"The ROTC kids were also firing off this cannon every time they scored, but they didn't fire off the cannon on the last score because they ran out of ammo.

"The worst part was that the St. Petersburg Times ran a big picture of the game in the paper, and in the background you could see the scoreboard, which said home 63, visitor 3.

"The bus ride home was terrible, but shoot, the bus ride down was terrible. You didn't want to admit it, but you knew it was going to be terrible.

"And that, my friend, is the way that it was."

* * *

"We finally got tired of getting beaten up," Garcia said.

"We started working harder. We stopped saying, 'We don't have what (Sarasota or Manatee county teams) have because of centralized funding and that's why we can't compete.'

"We stopped saying, 'Building all these new schools dilutes the county's talent.' (Since 1984 the number of football-playing schools has increased from 15 to 26).

"Bottom line, there never was any excuse. We just weren't working hard enough."

Beginning in 1993, his first year as Hillsborough's coach, Garcia instituted a break-neck, year-round, schedule that rivals some college programs.

The Terriers quickly piled up nine and 10-win seasons, and opposing coaches became sick of getting beaten by Hillsborough.

"I really hate to say this," said Chamberlain head coach Billy Turner, the county's winningest coach with 199 victories, "but I have to give Hillsborough a lot of credit for the (county's turnaround). Hillsborough raised the level and everybody else had to start working harder to keep up."

Now, participation is up everywhere (Chamberlain had 120 kids out for football this season, more than twice as many as in the late 1980s); crowds are way up (8,000 watched Chamberlain beat Hillsborough 28-21 last season in the playoffs); and maybe most telling is the fact Hillsborough County playoff victories against traditional powers are coming on a yearly basis.

Some would say the kick-start happened in 1992 when Jesuit finished as state runner-up, marking the first time since 1971 a Hillsborough County team made it to a championship game.

It wasn't until 1994, however, that county public schools broke an eight-year string of playoff losses.

* * *

The successes began to build.

1996: Hillsborough High reaches the Class 6A state final; Jefferson earns a semifinal spot; and Plant City and Brandon defeat two of The Big Three on the same night in the regular season.

1997: Robinson reaches the state quarterfinals.

1998: Chamberlain, Hillsborough and Plant City go a combined 5-0 against The Big Three during the regular season. Garcia cries and Turner nearly does the same after defeating Sarasota Riverview and Bradenton Manatee, respectively.

1999: Eleven Hillsborough teams make the playoffs and six win playoff games.

2000: Again, 11 teams make the playoffs and seven win games; Armwood reaches the state semifinals.

2001: Chamberlain makes the Class 5A state final.

Some have said the success has something to do with the FHSAA, beginning in 1993, allowing district runners-up to make the playoffs. That could explain why more county teams get in, it doesn't explain how so many advance deep into the playoffs, beating traditional powers along the way.

Other theorists have said the county's recent rise is based largely on more players transferring to stronger programs.

The bottom line is that all of this might be partly true, but no one disputes the main reason is that coaches are working harder.

Programs -- including East Bay, Riverview, Hillsborough, Chamberlain, Jefferson, King, Tampa Bay Tech, Plant, Jesuit and Armwood -- are now firmly in place. A standard of excellence has been set.

"After what we experienced last year, I'd say it's just a matter of time before somebody from this county wins a state title (which hasn't happened since 1969)," said Turner, whose four playoff victories last season were the first of his 31-year coaching career. "The teams we played in county last season (Chamberlain lost to East Bay and Riverview) were just as athletic and prepared as any we faced from around the state in the playoffs.

"Maybe this year it will be (nationally ranked) Jefferson that wins it. If not them, then somebody.

"It's going to happen sooner than later."

That's a far cry from what legendary Plant coach Roland Acosta said after 1988 when no Hillsborough school made the playoffs: "The way things are going I don't think you'll ever see a state champion team out of the city of Tampa," he said. "We can't compete with (the state powers)."

Flash to Armwood's weight room on the first day of off-season workouts, year 2002: Callahan stood there with his whistle around his neck, his Armwood football T-shirt on his back and his clipboard in his hand as he checked off the 80 kids who attended.

He said he didn't feel the least bit stupid.

DT DONNIE WOODS

Introducing OL Donnie Woods

Birthday: Jan. 27, 1984

Birth weight: 9 pounds, 5 ounces

Birth place: Dade City

Current weight: 295 pounds

Current height: 6 feet 5

One of many: Donnie is the seventh of 10 Woods children, ranging in age from 31 to 9. Donnie's brother, Brian, is an assistant coach at Jefferson.

Biggest, by far: Donnie is more than five inches taller and many pounds heavier than any of his brothers and sisters. "We have no idea how that happened," said his mother, Donna, who is 5-7. "He said it was all those hot dogs he ate and milk he drank growing up. He was drinking about a gallon of milk a day at one point."

A foot above: Besides always being the biggest kid in the class, and one of the most popular, Donnie also was given an award in elementary school for having the biggest feet. He doesn't hold that honor anymore. He currently shoe size is 15.

FROM THE CRADLE

THE '80s

SEPT. 4, 1984

Armwood and Gaither open, taking the bulk of their enrollment from Brandon and Chamberlain, respectively, and increasing the number of football-playing schools in Hillsborough County to 17.

NOV. 1985

Brandon's football team reaches the Class 5A semifinal before losing 27-14 to Pensacola Woodham. Brandon's two playoff victories were the last for a Hillsborough County public school for eight years.

AUG. 31, 1987

Bloomingdale High opens, drawing the bulk of its enrollment from Brandon.

NOV. 24 1989

Chamberlain makes its fifth trip to the playoffs in the 1980s, only to lose 28-13 to Bradenton Manatee. It was the Chiefs' fifth consecutive first-round playoff loss.

THE '90s

DEC. 18, 1992

Jesuit loses 28-16 to Pasco in the Class 3A state final. Jesuit is the first Hillsborough school, public or private, to reach a state football final since 1971 when Robinson lost 29-13 to Fort Pierce Central.

FALL 1993

The FHSAA allows district runners-up to compete in state playoffs.

NOV. 19, 1994

Gaither and Jefferson win playoff games, ending the county's eight-year winless playoff streak for public schools.

AUG. 24, 1995

Durant opens, taking enrollment from Bloomingdale, Brandon and Plant City.

SEPT. 13, 1996

Plant City defeats Bradenton Southeast 23-6, marking the first time Southeast coach Paul Maechtle had lost to a Hillsborough team. Maechtle came into that game with a 40-0 record against Hillsborough County. On the same night, Brandon defeated four-time state champ Bradenton Manatee 23-9. Manatee's Joe Kinnan came into the night with a 32-1 record against Hillsborough teams. The following day the Times ran a story on the front of its sports page with the headline: Stunners! Raiders, Eagles win.

NOV. 29, 1996

Tampa Catholic's Kenny Kelly throws his last pass as a high school player, a pass that fell incomplete and sealed a 25-22 playoff loss at Pahokee. Kelly finished his prep career with a state-record 7,486 passing yards. His top receiver, Darrell Jackson, capped his prep career with a then-national record 4,569 receiving yards.

DEC. 20, 1996

Six Hillsborough teams qualify for the playoffs. Hillsborough reaches the Class 6A state final before losing 21-7 to Miami Carol City. Jefferson, led by dynamic quarterback Reche Caldwell, reaches the Class 5A semifinal before losing 25-14 to St. Thomas Aquinas.

AUG. 20, 1997

Blake, Sickles and Wharton open, taking enrollment from schools all over the county.

DEC. 20, 1997

Robinson's Zain Gilmore becomes the first county player named Mr. Florida Football, awarded each year to the state's top player. Gilmore finished his senior year with 2,322 rushing yards and a state-best 29 touchdowns. He also helped lead his team, nicknamed the "Men In Black," to the state quarterfinals where it lost 35-16 at Belle Glade Glades Central.

AUG. 13, 1998

Riverview opens, taking enrollment from East Bay and Bloomingdale.

FALL 1998

Chamberlain, Hillsborough and Plant City go a combined 5-0 against "The Big Three," Bradenton Southeast, Bradenton Manatee and Sarasota Riverview. When Hillsborough defeats Sarasota Riverview 20-17 in overtime, Terrier coach Earl Garcia cries. Chiefs coach Billy Turner almost does the same when Chamberlain defeats Bradenton Manatee 27-15. It was Garcia's and Turner's first victories against any of "The Big Three."

NOV. 1999

Eleven Hillsborough County football teams reach the playoffs. Six earn at least one victory.

2000-plus

DEC. 8, 2000

Armwood reaches state semifinals before losing 41-15 at Belle Glade Glades Central. Seven Hawks go on to sign Division I scholarships, believed to be a county record for Division I signees.

AUG. 8, 2001

Alonso opens and struggles through one of the most brutal 0-10 seasons in county history. The Ravens score 13 points in 10 games.

DEC. 7, 2001

Chamberlain ends one of the most magical rides through the playoffs in county history, losing 21-17 to Naples in the Class 5A final. The Chiefs' four playoff victories were the first in coach Billy Turner's 31-year coaching career.

AUG. 7, 2002

Middleton and Freedom open, but will play independent football schedules, avoiding getting pummeled by traditional powerhouses. The additions bring the number of football-playing schools in county to 26.

AUG. 2002

Jefferson has three players -- WR Andre Caldwell, OL Donnie Woods and RB Rashaun Grant -- named to Rivals.com's top 100 players in the country. Jefferson is also ranked in the top 50 of several national preseason polls.

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