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Coach and his team were both fortunate

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 16, 2003

WESLEY CHAPEL -- That Kent Mills. What a lucky guy.

But not the way you think.

The Wesley Chapel coach doesn't believe for a second that he was lucky to win 52 games in his two seasons as the Wildcats coach. It wasn't luck that he won 25 in his first season as a head coach.

It's not luck that has the program's first two district titles sitting in Wesley Chapel's trophy case. Those two regional titles aren't luck, either. Nor is that 6-2 postseason record.

It isn't luck that Mills, in his first high school coaching job, twice took a fourth-year program to the state semifinals in Lakeland.

That was all work. Not luck. Work.

But life isn't all about hard work. Breaks come your way. Things look up. Sometimes, fortune just smiles upon you. Sometimes, you just get lucky.

Mills believes he has been lucky in so many ways.

Lucky, for starters, to be with his kids as they finished their high school careers. Son Zach. Tyrone Tomlin. Greg Harrison. David Simpson. Eric Sorensen. All of the kids he has been with since his East Pasco Basketball League days are like family.

Somehow, he always found a way to be with them.

"I have just moved up each year with this group," said the 40-year-old coach.

But Wesley Chapel has been lucky as well. Lucky that a parent like Mills was dedicated enough, organized enough and interested enough to rescue a floundering program and turn it into a state power.

When Conrad Foss was named the school's first coach in 1999, Mills was there as an assistant, coaching his kids as freshmen.

Foss resigned in 2000, and days later the majority of his team was disciplined by school officials for misconduct during road games, including incidents of theft. But there was Mills to help hold what was left of the program together. He asked principal Andy Frelick to let him run the offseason summer program, and Frelick agreed.

Then football assistant Roy Harden was named the new coach, and truth be told, he was more caretaker than coach. But Mills was asked to stay on as an assistant, to help a coach with little experience at that level.

Some might have fumed. Not Mills. Far from it.

"I felt fortunate then to still be a part of it," he said. "Then Harden stepped down right after the season, and again not knowing where I would go for the varsity job, I went to Mr. Frelick and I said, 'These kids need summer basketball. I'll run them again this summer if you let me,' and he said fine."

But Mills was already thinking ahead to 2001. The Wildcats need a coach. Why not go for it?

"I talked to my wife about it," Mills said. "It was actually more difficult to be the assistant because I wasn't setting the team's schedule. I was missing more as the JV and assistant coach because I wasn't the one in charge of doing the when and where.

"It would be simpler if I could be in charge."

But he wasn't a teacher. He had tried that path once to coaching, and it didn't work out for him.

"It's always been a dream to coach," he said. "When I went to college I went to be a P.E. and history teacher and coach basketball, but it didn't work out and I went to work for this company. I put my dreams away.

"Then Mr. Frelick gave me the opportunity to coach, and I felt so overwhelmed that I was actually going to be able to coach high school basketball because that's what I always wanted to do."

Thus began two years of what Mills calls "smoke and mirrors."

How does a businessman who works 55 hours a week coach a high school team? With the patience and flexibility of everyone else: the principal, parents, kids, assistants and his bosses. At work and at home.

"I might be in West Palm for the day, and I'll call practice at 7:30 at night and the kids and parents were flexible enough to let me do it," he said. "I give a lot of credit to why this happened to the flexibility of everyone else, especially my wife (Teresa), who gave me the flexibility to work two jobs."

Working two jobs required the most luck of all. There were no emergencies that tore him away from the team at a crucial time. His bosses let him use a vacation day here and there for the team's sake.

Understanding bosses? Now that is lucky.

"I don't see how I can ever find a situation that would allow me to coach again," he said. "You have to have such flexibility in an administration that allows a non-teacher to coach, a group of student-athletes that will always be flexible to the type of schedule I have."

Mills is done at Wesley Chapel now. He got lucky again, sort of, when a coveted regional manager position for Illinois, Indiana and northern Kentucky (you knew the lifelong Wildcats fan would find a way to be closer to Lexington) opened. It was the job his father, Gus, held for decades. He planned to stay two more years at Wesley Chapel before the new job came up. His resignation was official after Wednesday's state semifinal loss in Lakeland. He leaves for Indianapolis today on a 4 p.m. flight.

Teresa, son Zach and daughter Bobbi, 11, who goes to Weightman Middle School, will finish the school year here before moving to Noblesville, Ind., with him. Eldest son Kyle, 20, is already at Indiana Technical Institute.

So, to sum up: Mills was a parent with his own time-consuming business; a non-school board employee hired to coach a high school team; a basketball-crazed youth coach given a once-in-a-lifetime shot to coach the kids he has spent years with in the game he loves.

"It's been chaotic," he said. "But it's been fun."

And that, to him, has been the best luck of all.

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