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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Armwood coach Sean Callahan has guided his team to consecutive state championships, and has won 42 of his past 43 on the field.
[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
2003: Jarriett Buie, now at South Florida, celebrates after Armwood wins its first state title and the first for Hillsborough County since 1969.
[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
2004: The county and the school would not have to wait long for another crown -- coach Sean Callahan is carried off after Armwood's second.
SEFFNER - The license plate on Armwood football coach Sean Callahan's blue SUV reads "ST CHAMP." Around school, people wear shirts that ask, "Got rings?" The coaching staff's game-day caps have the words "State Champions" stitched into them. A sign that faces Interstate 4 promotes the program's back-to-back state titles.
Around here, winning is expected.
But that wasn't always the case. In his first five years at Armwood, the coach whose team has claimed 42 of its past 43 games on the field (it lost one by forfeit), won a grand total of 17 games.
"In my fifth season, we went 2-8 and I remember telling my wife, "Maybe we've got to do something else,"' Callahan said.
Eleven years later, Callahan is on the verge of something special. With a win in Saturday's Class 4A final in Miami over Ponte Vedra Beach Nease (12-2), Armwood (13-1) would claim its third straight championship and join elite company. In the history of high school football in Florida, only six programs have won three consecutive titles.
"It's hard," said Mike Pittman, who led Live Oak Suwannee to four straight from 1987-90. "You've got to be lucky, you've got to have some talent, and the biggest thing is keeping them all together."
At Tallahassee North Florida Christian, which won four straight from 1998-2001 to tie Suwannee for the state mark, former coach Tim Cokely was blessed with enormous talent. During NFC's run, the roster included Tony Milton (Georgia), Constantin Ritzmann (Tennessee) and Ernie Sims (Florida State).
"Good players make good teams," Cokely said.
Robby Pruitt can attest to that. His Union County squads, which in the mid 1990s won three straight championships, had their share of stars, too. Quarterback Andrew Zow later started for Alabama. Gerard Warren, a defensive tackle, was a standout at Florida and went third overall in the 2001 NFL draft.
"It's easy to win one," said Pruitt, who now coaches in Fitzgerald, Ga. "It's a whole lot harder to win two and a whole, whole lot harder to win three."
Why are streaks so rare?
The obvious answer is that each season the roster changes. Players graduate, transfer, quit. Often times, a program has one remarkable class that wins a title or two, but classes of that level generally aren't followed by ones of similar talent.
"There wasn't any great coaching on my part," Pruitt said. "The fact of the matter is, we had an unusual group of kids. There's no other way to describe it. They were special. You don't get groups like that all the time."
Motivation is another factor.
In every level of sports, it's uncommon for teams to maintain their drive and focus after tasting championship success.
"One way to motivate our kids was that we'd ask the seniors, "Are y'all going to be the ones to mess it up?"' said Cokely, now in Colquitt County, Ga.
Winning doesn't just bring about popularity, as successful coaches discovered. It often breeds discontent. At NFC, Suwannee and Union County, when the programs were at their peaks, each had naysayers. Each was accused of recruiting.
"I got that all the time," Pruitt said. "Instead of pointing out the things you're doing right, they want to try to find something negative. That just comes with it."
Armwood's Callahan can relate.
"Those guys know what I go through," he said.
How has Callahan pulled it off?
As with the aforementioned programs, the stars seem to have aligned. The Hawks have had their share of standouts (see fullback Kalvin Bailey, now at Iowa) and quality role players. They've also had good fortune (this season, two standouts from Louisiana joined the squad after Hurricane Katrina hit their hometown).
The coaches have to get credit, too.
After his early struggles, Callahan found a formula that involves the coach being very hands-on; he credits that greatly for his program's success. In the summer before kids arrive at Armwood as ninth-graders, he introduces them to weights, speed development and plyometrics. He closely watches over each player until the day he graduates. And Armwood's junior varsity, which Callahan says has two losses in 10 seasons, has become an effective feeder program.
"Whatever people say about him, he's doing something right," Pittman said.