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Pasco no longer premier football job

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003

DADE CITY -- When Ricky Thomas assumed the duties of football coach at Pasco High in 1996, there wasn't a better job in Pasco County.

The Red and Black had it all. The tradition. The talent. The expectations. The Pirates were expected to rule Pasco County, to advance deep into the playoffs, and maybe, just maybe, bring back another state championship to sit beside the '92 trophy.

It was the preeminent job in the county.

Seven years later, that is no longer true. Now the toughest football job in the county resides at Pasco.

Whomever principal Pat Reedy chooses as the next coach faces a daunting reclamation project.

"It's a big job ahead," said Thomas, who resigned in late December with a 45-29 record.

The next coach will take over a program bereft of talent. The graduation of Thomas' last senior class leaves Pasco's shelves bare. The offensive line returns intact and wideout Johnny Peyton is a star, but the offensive backfield and defensive secondary are empty.

What will happen to the Pirates? First, we must ask what did happen?

No one single factor can be blamed for the program's woes, because Pasco football had the misfortune of being the first county athletic program to face the future of high school sports before anyone realized exactly what that future entailed.

School expansion hurt Pasco like no other team. When Wesley Chapel opened in 1999, it siphoned off many Dade City players. "Wesley Chapel really crippled us," Thomas said. "It sucker-punched Pasco right in the stomach."

It hurt Zephyrhills, too. In two to four years, Land O'Lakes, Mitchell and Wesley Chapel will experience it themselves when the school district builds new high schools to relieve overcrowding. But they will be ready. Years ago, Pasco wasn't, and didn't know it had to be.

School choice also baffled Pasco. Quarterback Matt Glavich and lineman Donnie Woods were born-and-bred Dade City boys but left Pasco to help build Jefferson into a state power. Both had disagreements with Thomas, but even if there were no animosity, would either star have forsaken state-wide acclaim in Tampa to stay in Dade City? And they were just the most prominent to leave; others went to Wesley Chapel, while others constantly flirted with transferring.

But even if Wesley Chapel had never been built, even if school choice never existed, the talent pool would still not have been deep enough to meet Dade City's perpetually unrealistic expectations.

Ever since the '83 team put the town on the map, Pasco fans' expectations of their hometown boys have wildly exceeded reality.

"Nobody in the county is afraid of that uniform anymore," Thomas said. "The talent is watered down and there are no more Taras Rosses or (Darren and Troy) Hambricks around anymore.

"Expectations are probably a little bit farfetched, I think from people that were on the bandwagon when things were good."

Could Pasco have handled those challenges better? Perhaps. But the problems don't end there.

Pasco, in the era of school choice, has never grappled with the reality that players' loyalties are no longer automatic. Programs must compete for talent. Though the rules prohibit it, players and their parents consider athletics, like special programs and classes, to be worth switching schools.

Those programs, no matter the sport, that don't have the facilities, coaches, expertise, success or tradition to compete on an open market for athletes and their parents will suffer. Now more than ever, families actively seek out the best opportunities for their children no matter the field -- and they aren't going to apologize for it.

Discipline, though, is the most alarming issue. The 15-yard personal foul is a troubling and embarrassing staple of Pasco football, along with late hits, taunting and other unsportsmanlike conduct.

"Go back 10 years and look at the '92 teams and any of the '80s teams. It's not just my teams," Thomas said. "It's something that started long before I got there. Maybe it was because the kids think they've got a certain image they have to live up to.

"We ran them, we rolled them, we slid them, we didn't play them, we held them out for quarters, and it just didn't seem to stop that much."

Conduct is not the only issue. Too often in recent years, Pasco teams have lost their composure and suffered mental breakdowns in close games. Thomas wonders if the Pirates' reputation is to blame.

"For some reason, I think a lot of kids think if you put on the red and black uniform, something magical will happen to you," Thomas said, "and it just doesn't work that way.

"You need kids now who are going to practice and pay the price and get after it for four solid quarters. The days of just putting the uniform on are long, long gone."

But to Thomas, community is the most distressing problem. Win or lose, he said, Dade City must support its teams, its players, its kids, no matter who the coach is.

"You win three in a row and they love you," Thomas said. "If you start to struggle a little bit, they just won't come to games. I'm really disappointed in the support system.

"It's not about me. It's not about the coach. Support the kids. Support the doggone kids."

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