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Deep roots in the school

Rodney Byrd has been a student, player, teacher, AD and coach at Hernando.

By DAVID MURPHY
Published January 31, 2007


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BROOKSVILLE - The man in charge of restoring pride to the Hernando football program grew up in Mitchell Heights, near a cement plant and an orange juice factory. He attended Moton Elementary until third grade when the racial integration of schools prompted a transfer to Brooksville Elementary.

The man in charge of restoring pride to the Hernando football program played three years for the Leopards and won a Division I-AA national title at Eastern Kentucky. He has served as the school's athletic director, head girls basketball coach, head track coach and, briefly, head soccer coach.

The man in charge of restoring pride to the program is also the first black head football coach in Hernando history.

While Rodney Byrd said he considers himself a football coach first and an "ordinary country boy" second, the significance of that final characteristic is not lost on him.

"In certain people's perspective, it might be (considered) historic," Byrd said Tuesday.

But Byrd's ascension to the top job at his alma mater is more a story of his background than a story of the color of his skin. He is a local product, a Brooksville staple, a man who is respected at the school and in the community.

"In the back of my mind, yes, I thought one day I'd be head football coach," Byrd said.

But it has taken some time.

* * *

Byrd's mother was a head cook at a hospital and his father worked for the Florida Mining Company. Byrd, who was born in 1960, was in third grade when schools in Hernando County were integrated, but he said he never tasted much of the racial strife that marked the time.

"When you are a kid, you just meet kids and have fun," he said. "It didn't matter what color they are."

Named "most athletic" at Hernando his senior year, he played safety at Eastern Kentucky, helping the Colonels win a national title in 1979. In 1985, he took a job teaching physical education at Hernando. He also took a job as an assistant football coach for a Leopards team that had suffered just one losing season in the previous 13 years.

Hernando wouldn't finish below .500 for the next eight seasons. During Byrd's first stint as assistant, from 1985-2000, the Leopards had just three losing seasons. Now, however, times have changed.

Hernando hasn't finished above .500 since 2002, when Bill Browning led the team to a 6-4 record. The past three years, the Leopards won just seven combined games under Matt Smith, who was fired in December. Since Byrd first arrived at Hernando as an assistant, two new high schools have opened, including Nature Coast, a magnet school that attracts students from all over the county.

Leopards athletic director Brent Gaustad, an assistant with Byrd during the late 1980s and early 1990s, is convinced the 46-year-old can help the program overcome some of the obstacles it now faces.

"Having been here, he knows the history of the team, the history of the school," Gaustad said.

Byrd said his No. 1 priority is to restore local pride in the football program. He said he will do this by "pounding the pave- ment:" heading out to Hernando's feeder middle schools, talking about the history of the program, convincing kids to not only play football, but play for Hernando. (The top running backs in the county this past season, Central's DuJuan Harris and Nature Coast's Tevin Drake, live in south Brooksville, minutes from the Hernando campus.)

"We plan on keeping all those kids who have been filtering out, the kids in the neighborhood," Byrd said.

A few weeks ago, it looked like Byrd might be the one leaving. He had applied for the head coach's job at Hernando in 2004, losing out to Smith. When Pasco High opened its search to replace Dale Caparaso, Byrd applied, emerging as a leading candidate.

The Pirates hired Wesley Chapel assistant Tom McHugh, but Byrd said he has never allowed himself to take rejection, or acceptance, personally.

"I really didn't want to leave Hernando High," Byrd said. "I grew up here, I didn't want to leave, but I wanted to be a head coach."

Now, finally, he has that chance.

[Last modified January 30, 2007, 22:57:50]


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