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Coaches were his fathers

As he steps down as county athletic director, Vernon Korhn reflects on the role coaches played in his upbringing.

By SCOTT PURKS
Published October 14, 2006


TAMPA - Bitterness would have been easy for Vernon Korhn. All he had to do was run down the list: My mother died when I was 7. My father died when I was 14. My only sibling, 21-year-old Bill, is sickly after suffering from rheumatic fever as a child. I must take care of my brother, living alone with him as I try to survive high school. We are not left with much money ...

The year was 1959. Korhn was a freshman at Plant High.

"My coaches ...," he said, lips quivering, tears rolling to his chin. "My coaches ..."

He was stuck on "coaches," sitting there in the middle of his stripped-down Hillsborough County athletic director's office, two days before Friday, his last on the job. The word, "coaches," seemed more striking because it's a word Korhn uses for almost everybody he respects, whether they are a coach or not. ... "Hey coach, how are you today," ... "Coach, what can I do for you ..." It may be the word Korhn has said the most throughout his life.

"My coaches," he said, wiping his face, finally finding his breath, "were my fathers. They took care of me. ... They talked to me about life and what was going on in my life every day."

One day as a Plant junior, Korhn remembers sitting in the football field house with late Plant head football coach John Burgess, who asked, "What are you going to do after you graduate? You going to be a lawyer? A doctor?"

Korhn, who was a straight-A student and president of his senior class, said, "No coach, I'm going to be a high school coach just like you. I'm going to help kids like you have helped me."

Burgess laughed. A big, big laugh. Then he said, "Vernon, anybody who bases their livelihood on what a bunch of 16- and 17-year-olds do on Friday night is crazy!"

They both laughed.

The deal, Korhn knew, was sealed.

* * *

After Korhn won the Guy Toph award (given each year to Hillsborough County's best football player), after he blew out his knee playing quarterback at Florida State University, after he rehabilitated and quarterbacked three years at the University of Tampa, and after he earned his degree in physical education, Korhn was on Plant's field, an assistant coach under Burgess.

It was 1968.

Earl Garcia, now the head football coach at Hillsborough High, said he remembers it like yesterday. Garcia was a 15-year-old kid trying to play nose guard, and Korhn was showing him how to do it.

"I liked Vernon from the moment I met him," Garcia said. "I wanted to like him, to respect him. See, my father had died when I was 11, so I needed father figures like Vernon in my life."

Garcia chuckled. "I guess I can blame Vernon for where I'm at," said Garcia, who has coached 35 years. "He's one of the main reasons I became a coach.

"I wasn't that stupid, you know. I could have been a lawyer, or I could have sold Corvettes and made a heckuva lot more money than I made coaching a bunch of kids."

When Garcia was told of Korhn's story as a teenager, goose bumps ran over him. He said he had no idea. He said, "That's amazing because when I was a junior in high school, I knew without a doubt that I was going to be a coach. I was going to be a coach just like Vernon Korhn."

* * *

At every level - from a football assistant, to a wrestling and swimming coach, to a head football coach (Leto 1972-79), to a school athletic director (Hillsborough High, 1985-88), to Hillsborough County's assistant director of athletics (1988-2000), to the county's director of athletics (2000 to present) - Korhn has worked to have impact.

He's tried to make sure people knew he was listening. He's always said: Tell me what's on your mind, and I'll do whatever I can to help.

He has always - always - been in the community, at games, accessible. On the sidelines talking with folks, Korhn' would smile, laugh, grimace. And assuredly, a few athletic directors or principals every night would get a hug.

"People have always loved Vernon," said Bill Minahan, who as a quarterbacks' coach at Plant got about as close to Korhn as anybody. "When he was in high school he was so appreciative. I think because his parents died so young it made him really appreciate those who helped him out.

"When I see him now, after everything he's been through and everything he's done, I feel like a proud father. I've met a lot of people in my life, but Vernon is one of the greatest ever. Truly."

* * *

On Friday, his last day as Hillsborough County athletic director, Korhn collected up a few boxes that helped explain a lot.

Looking inside, there might have been 100 pigs stuffed in there. Ceramic. Stuffed. Wicker. Pigs in dresses. Dancing pigs. Piggie banks. Pigs no taller than a dime.

Korhn, tears holding back like water against the dam, said, "Coach, this started when I was at Leto."

On the first of January every year, he, his coaching staff and several teachers would weigh in. Korhn wrote their names on a board. Every following Friday, there was another weigh-in. If you didn't lose at least one pound, a little pig sticker went up next to your name. The person with the most pig stickers at the end of the semester would get a pig presented to them. Perhaps a stuffed one. Or maybe a ceramic.

Because Korhn started the whole thing, he was known as the head hog. Ever since then, a box would periodically show up in Korhn's mail. It might come from Georgia or North Carolina or Alaska. Wherever one of Korhn's friends might have been vacationing. Inside the box would be a pig.

"And we would give him these pigs for no reason other than we wanted him to know we were thinking about him," said Mary Perez, who after 25 years as the county's athletic director's secretary, shed plenty of her own tears.

The pigs used to sit around his office. Now, he said he'll find a place for them at his house.

And what will Korhn do?

"Well, Coach, I'll tell ya," he said, "I'm still going to be involved in some way. I'll help (new county athletic director Lanness Robinson) any way I can."

Through the winter he'll continue working on a state-wide task force to get recruiting under control. He said he can't stand the number of kids transferring from one school to another.

He said he'll get in some fishing and golf for a little while, but then, and he got a big grin on his face, he said, "I might just try to find a job as an (assistant) football coach."

For real?

"Coach," he said, "I think I'd love to be a coach again."