ST. PETERSBURG - As a fifth-grader in Ogallala, Neb., Phil Hayford spent most of his time in a vacant lot by his parents' house playing pickup football games. That was where he started his playbook, drawing up plays on index cards and handing them out to his friends.
Unbeknownst to his mother, Hayford kept many of those cards. She found that out a few years ago when she cleaned out an attic and found boxes of those crusted, dried-out cards covered in dust.
"My mother asked if I wanted to keep them," Hayford said. "I said, "Nah, it's about time I got rid of those'."
All these yars later, Hayford is still drawing up plays. The only difference is they are now written on large pieces of beige paper for everyone to see.
"I did that on purpose," Hayford said. "I wear glasses, so they have to be big."
That's Hayford. Always changing.
His schemes have become more complex, but the results have been simple.
His teams usually win.
Whether it's the pro-set, Wing-T or wishbone, Hayford adjusts with his players, helping Shorecrest establish tradition. He has guided the Chargers to 14 appearances in the playoffs and has 160 wins, the most by a private school coach in Pinellas County.
Tonight, Hayford embarks on a milestone as he enters his 25th season as the school's head coach. His tenure is tied with former Gibbs coach Nathaniel "Love" Brown as the second-longest at any one county school. Northeast coach Jerry Austin, entering his 26th season, has the longest.
"It's amazing that I've coached here that long," Hayford said.
For eight years, Hayford was an assistant at Oswego (Ill.) High. After coaching freshmen, he became the sophomore coach for two years before moving to varsity. When the varsity coach stepped down, Hayford figured he had a shot at the job. The school hired someone else.
"I thought that was my shot," he said. "I told them I was going to look."
What he found was Shorecrest.
In 1978, Hayford was in St. Petersburg visiting in-laws when he spotted Shorecrest's field. He marveled at the Bermuda grass, so much so he crawled on all fours like a kid.
"You just don't get that stuff in Nebraska," Hayford said. "It was just heaven, a coach's dream."
Right then, Bruce Haskell, the school's principal at the time, noticed Hayford frolicking on the pristine field.
"That was quite an introduction," Hayford said. "Here comes the principal wondering who this lunatic is on his field. So I tell him I'm a football coach and asked if he would consider me."
Haskell did. Hayford was added to the coaching staff as an assistant in 1979 and became the head coach in 1980.
One of Hayford's first priorities was to build the program. He did that literally, digging holes for lights to be installed, planting bushes around the sidelines, erecting a makeshift press box that consisted of a trailer with a scaffold.
Those added touches made Haskell Field one of the more charming football settings around.
Fans on the sideline were at arm's length from the players. And Hayford started a tradition of allowing students to roam the field at halftime.
"I really liked that setting," Hayford said. "It was a way for the fans to be connected with the program."
But Hayford has done more than build a field.
He has built a dynasty.
Shorecrest has made more playoff appearances in the past 25 years than any other private school in the county. The two greatest seasons came in 1993 and '94 when the Chargers went a combined 22-2 and were ranked No. 1 in the Class A state poll.
"That was a great time back then," Hayford said. "But there are so many great memories."
Throughout the years and the memories, Hayford has always had one loyal assistant, Dave Field.
"I can't think of anywhere else I'd rather be," Field said. "It's a perfect situation."
In an impromptu search, Field became Hayford's first hire in 1980.
"I went searching through a bunch of resumes before I came across Dave's," Hayford said. "He had a picture to go along with it and he was wearing a yellow shirt with a green tie. I can remember telling Haskell, "Hey look at this guy, he's got on the school colors'."
Field was more than qualified and became the one person Hayford would lean on during intense moments.
"It's probably the best relationship that I have, other than one I have with my wife," Hayford said. "We get along great and it's to the point now where we finish each other's sentences."
On Friday nights you can find the Hayford family nearby.
Phil's wife, Sandy, a physical education teacher at the elementary school, prints programs, makes sure the microphone is working in the press box and even fills in as the water carrier.
His daughter, Mindy, a Shorecrest graduate and former cheerleader, is also there. His son, Brett, a coach at Davidson College, attends when he can.
Of all the wins, district titles and playoff appearances, the one thing Hayford enjoys the most is the Turkey Bowl, a flag football game played each year on the Friday after Thanksgiving between former Charger players.
The game and the program have grown through the years. The stadium was rebuilt in 2001 and now sits in the back of the school. In the parking lot, Hayford rents a Moonwalk for the Turkey Bowl to keep the children of his former players occupied.
"The association with my athletes is what I do it for," Hayford said. "I'll probably keep coaching football until I have a heart attack. And when I have one, I'll fall forward and gain yardage like any good running back should."