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Those who did, teach

A high school coach doesn't have to have played in college, but it sure doesn't hurt.

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 3, 2002

After a steamy regular season practice, the Crystal River football team lines up for wind sprints. The players are tired and sweaty, their legs tightening up.

Running the drill is assistant Sean Cassese, who takes his mark, gives the signal, then beats everyone across the imaginary finish line.

"He usually jumps in there right when we get tired and it makes us look bad," Pirates linebacker Josh Hall said with a smile. "He's playing around."

But when Cassese talks, players listen. And not just because his booming voice almost could knock you down.

It may be because only three years ago, he was starting the last two games of the 1999 season on the University of South Florida offensive line, helping Bulls running back Dyral McMillan to back-to-back 200-yard games. Today Cassese stands 6-foot-2, 280 pounds, about 20 pounds less than his playing weight as a center and left guard.

As a coach, Cassese doesn't mind breaking a sweat.

"I don't know if it motivates them or not, but sometimes I feel like I've got to try something when it looks like they're dragging," Cassese said. "That's okay because it's been a hot fall and when they're dragging, it takes a little something to get them on stride. I don't care what it is."

Cassese is one of several assistants on the county's coaching staffs with collegiate playing experience. At Crystal River, he is joined by assistant Charles Brooks, who played in 1985-86 at what was then Valdosta State College in Georgia.

Cassese considers himself a field coach, and while he does not call the Pirates' plays, he does make sure they run them right.

"I know a lot about technique," Cassese said. "I'm young enough where I have the luxury of not paying too much attention to big-time offensive and defensive philosophy."

Lecanto assistant Chris Grimes played middle linebacker at Butler from 1996-99. He has worked with wide receivers and linebackers, as well as the rest of the Panthers' defense. Grimes said his time in uniform helps when working with teenagers.

"I think it helps me get my point across," said Grimes, whose fellow assistant Don Magee was a wingback at Syracuse from 1973-1976. "They're going to listen to me because they know I played."

Although Citrus assistant Ed Kilpatrick jokes that he is too old and his knees too bad to mix it up with players, he played football at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College and Indiana State. Kilpatrick, who worked with the junior varsity this season, previously spent nine years on the varsity staff.

"You know the kind of effect coaches can have when you went through it." Kilpatrick said. "You use that experience to regulate how you treat and act around the kids with certain conditioning things and drills."

Citrus coach Larry Bishop said assistant Damian Mitchell played at Florida A&M and assistant Rick Keeran also played college ball.

Lecanto head coach Dick Slack, who played at Upper Iowa, said having that college background means a great deal in terms of credibility, but in no way is a prerequisite for being a good coach.

"We have great coaches who've never played college football but because they have a love for the game and every year that they've been in it, they're out trying to learn more about the game and becoming more proficient," Slack said.

Like Lecanto's Grimes, Cassese is in his first year as a high school coach.

Although he has limited experience, Cassese says if he treats the Pirates like he used to treat college players, they respond better. Crystal River coach Jere DeFoor said he hopes Cassese and Brooks will run his weight program during the offseason.

One coach Cassese said he tries to emulate is USF coach Jim Leavitt, whom he talks to on a regular basis. He said Leavitt used to run wind sprints with the team every day.

But Cassese said assistant coaches have a different kind of relationship with players. Probably his best friend in the world is Greg Frey, who played at Florida State and was his position coach at USF. "Assistant coaches usually are supposed to form a tight bond with that player, like an offensive lineman to an offensive line coach," Cassese said. "That's the guy you can joke around with. You might be a little more liberal as a player saying stuff in front of him than you would in front of a head coach."

The desire to stay involved and teach the game to young players is what fuels Cassese and other ex-players on the sideline. That and the adrenaline.

Cassese's career ended in a 21-9 loss to Kentucky in the second game of the 2000 season when he suffered a herniated disc in his neck, and he has a steel plate to prove it. The injury occurred in a collision with a blitzing linebacker, as Cassese was late getting off the block to pick him up and said his head, which was at an awkward angle, just popped. The injury crushed the nerves in his neck and and Cassese lost feeling and movement in his right arm and side for a long time.

"You love to compete every week and when you can't do it as a player, as a coach it's just as good," Cassese said. "Especially if you put the same amount of dedication as I do into it. It's purely the competition, I love it."

County players are the beneficiaries. Hall said no matter how much experience a coach has, players always have respect for them, but thinks it's neat to have former college players on staff.

"They're probably thinking, "I'm going to help these guys now so when they get up there, they're going to know what's going on,"' said Hall, who would like to coach someday.

-- Kristen Leigh Porter can be reached at or 564-3628.

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