A crowd of coaches
How many assistants does it take to build a successful high school football team? For undefeated Plant, a sideline-busting 22 is the magic number.
By JOEY KNIGHT
Published December 1, 2006
TAMPA - In terms of sheer numbers, no other football program in the area can touch them. They go two-deep at most positions, with college- and even NFL-caliber talent in some spots.
And truth be told, a bunch of them were brought in from a nearby private school. Six are even getting paid.
Their coach, Bob Weiner, wishes he could pay them all.
Problem is, there aren't enough county-funded stipends to go around for Plant's assistants, at least not all 22 of them. Usually, there's not enough sideline space either.
"If I was a stronger man, I'd probably be knocking some people over because I run into some people on the sideline," said Weiner, who leads his throng into tonight's Class 4A football semifinal against Miami Washington.
"I think we've gotten a sideline warning every game so far this year."
Indeed, elbow room has been sacrificed for the sake of one-on-one tutelage at Plant High, home to perhaps the largest coaching staff in the state - at any level.
"We have more people on our sideline than some countries have in their army," special teams coach Matt Walker said.
Broken down, the staff includes 14 varsity assistants, six junior varsity coaches and two academic coaches who oversee a one-hour study hall-type session three days a week.
Consider only the varsity staff, and it's still larger than Urban Meyer's at Florida and Jim Leavitt's at South Florida, both of which feature nine assistants and two graduate assistants.
Consider the entire staff, and it's slightly larger than Jon Gruden's at One Buc Place (19 excluding Gruden).
"Holy mackerel," exclaimed Vince Sussman, longtime assistant to legendary ex-Plant coach Roland Acosta. "That's more than one for every position."
In some places, it would be more than one for every player. The Panthers' 22 assistants are three more than the number of players on Tampa Baptist's season-opening roster.
"I'm just awed by that," ex-Panthers (1975-77) and University of Florida linebacker Jimmy Kalamaras said.
So was the team photographer, according to Weiner. Look at the 2006 squad's photo, and the longest row is the one of the men in black polos.
"He was like, 'I can't take a picture like that; there's too many people,' " Weiner recalled.
Undoubtedly, most probably echo the photographer's sentiment.
A generation ago, most staffs, including Acosta's, enjoyed steady success with coaching staffs only a fraction of the size of Weiner's. These days, even the largest prep programs typically feature a staff of no more than a dozen.
But nearly two-dozen?
"I tell you, they probably have so many kids," King coach Joe Severino said. "Like, if they had that many for 35 or 40 kids, that would be way too many. But they've probably got 100. It's probably not (exorbitant) for as many kids as they have."
According to their roster, the Panthers suited up 60 for last week's Class 4A region title game against Armwood, with another 21 who didn't suit up. Counting only those who suited up, that's a player-coach ratio of roughly 3-1.
"I don't know if it's that important to be that specialized or things like that. I do know that every single one of my coaches brings something to the table, whether it's their expertise or whether it's their personality in dealing and working with the kids," Weiner said.
"There's no question that football's about kids making good plays, but you've got to have people who are going to put them in position to make good plays."
Still, 22 different voices - 23, counting Weiner's - can easily drown out each other and create chaos on a Friday night. Offensive line coach Sean Love, who spent eight years in the NFL, acknowledges only a few Panthers assistants have major roles on game night.
But he concedes the evolution of football at the prep level warrants more specialization.
"We're a spread, four-wide receiver type of offense," Love said. "And you've got these teams in high school throwing these college blitzes at you, and there's a lot of access around here to the Bucs and USF and what they do.
"Actually, I tell my kids ... I'm preparing them for college and that college type of mentality. I know in high school (in the 1980s), we didn't see any blitzes. People would line up in a 3-4 base with one stunt and maybe one blitz."
Walker, a 1997 Jesuit graduate and walk-on running back at Florida from 1998-2000, defends Plant's staff size by drawing a parallel to the state's perpetual class-size issue.
In a previous era, Walker said, "you had a running backs coach who also coached linebackers, and you didn't really get a chance to coach those kids as much as you wanted. Here, none of those kids are getting looked over as far as the fundamentals of the game."
Weiner serves as offensive coordinator, but delegates responsibility liberally to his staffers, half of whom he either coached or worked with during his long tenure as a Jesuit assistant. Many, including Love, credit Weiner for letting "his assistants coach."
Financially, though, he literally is precluded from spreading the wealth. The School District of Hillsborough County permits only six assistants (three varsity, three JV) to receive monetary supplements.
But Weiner says he struggles to find people on his staff - all but one of his varsity assistants work off campus - who will take any money. One, junior varsity assistant Joe Sayre, cashed his supplement check and gave the money back to the program, Weiner said.
That, the coach adds, is a testament to the collective character of his surrounding cast.
"You might say, 'Well, (22) guys, he just takes anybody,' " Weiner said. "I'm extremely careful with who I place our kids with. I take that as the highest responsibility of all - who our kids are going to spend most of their time with. That's extremely important to me."
Few will argue with the results. The team (13-0) with the least room to stand is the only one still standing in Hillsborough County.
"My coaches would do anything for our kids in their power and the kids' best interests at any time," Weiner said. "And I truly believe when our kids leave here, our kids have a relationship for life with my assistants that they know they have someone they can always count on for everything."Joey Knight can be reached at (813) 226-3350 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
22: Plant High assistants
19: Bucs assistants
19: Players on Tampa Baptist's opening-week roster
11: USF assistants, including graduate assistants
11: UF assistants, including graduate assistants
Class 4A state semifinal
Plant vs. Miami Washington, 7:30 tonight, Dad's Stadium, Plant High, Tampa
No TV, no radio ...
Neither 620-AM nor Catch 47 is broadcasting the game. Both are carrying the 5A semifinal between Daytona Beach Mainland and Lakeland.
... No problem
The Times is providing frequent live updates from the game on its Web site at blogs.tampabay.com/preps
A breakdown of Plant's coaching staff, along with their responsibilities. Number in parentheses corresponds with number on photo:
Head coach: Bob Weiner 4
James Harrell (5), co-defensive coordinator/linebackers
John Few (3), co-defensive coordinator/linebackers)
Sean Love (6), offensive line
Billy Minahan (10), defensive line
Bo Puckett (9), running backs
T.J. Lane (15), receivers
Matt Walker (2), special teams
Matt Johnson (16), defensive backs
Jeff Murphy (11), tight ends
Chris James (14), receivers
Brian McNulty, offensive line
Darrell Howton (12), defensive backs
Ty Alvarez (7), tight ends/scouting
Dixon Cannon, receivers
Junior varsity: Tracy Schulis (8), Joe Sayre, Shawn Balow, Scott DeCamp (13), Steve Harrison, Josh Fairbanks
Academic coaches: Susan Gray, Jim Landers
Damon Dominguez (1), graduate assistant manager