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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.
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Taking another shot
A burned-out Greg O'Connell left coaching seven years ago. But his return has him elated.
By Izzy Gould
Published October 10, 2007
SPRING HILL - Greg O'Connell walked away from coaching seven years ago, but "The Big O" never walked away from basketball.
The former Springstead icon virtually built the boys basketball program from scratch - another coach preceded him for one season - then held its hand through 23 of its first 24 seasons.
O'Connell's teams went 366-233 and won four district titles, and O'Connell likes to believe he helped turn his players into productive members of society.
He walked away when the Eagles were at their peak.
Springstead's last victory under his watch was a region semifinal win in 2000, the first in school history.
In the end, the 6-foot-7 O'Connell, who starred on the basketball team at Saint Leo, was simply finished.
"I was physically, mentally burned out," O'Connell said. "There was one week left before I was done teaching and I had a hard time going in. After you do it for 33 years you got to the point where you can't take it anymore."
Today, just days after his 59th birthday and seven years since he last blew a whistle, O'Connell said he is "recharged."
He recently was approached and offered the head coaching job at Bishop McLaughlin, a moment tied into a feeling he could describe only as elation. He got the offer on a Tuesday and quickly accepted. As news of his return to coaching spread, some of his former adversaries chimed in.
"My first question is, what's he thinking now?" Ridgewood coach Gary Anders said. "Was he bored or what?"
River Ridge coach John Sedlack, who coached head-to-head against O'Connell at Central and Crystal River, had a different take.
"It doesn't surprise me," Sedlack said. "We're in a way cut from the same mold. It's just a part of us. I think it's great."
O'Connell never truly peeled himself away from the local game.
A fixture at Springstead games, O'Connell often could be seen watching from the stands across from the visiting team so he could stay out of the way and continue to observe, and even rejoined the Eagles as an assistant for a season. He spent a career coaching and teaching kids and had tight relationships with coaches such as former Pasco coach Willie Broner, Anders and Sedlack when they helped coach summer camps at Saint Leo.
"Greg was always a teacher of the game," Anders said. "I'm guessing the part he enjoys is the actual teaching of the game. He's probably looking forward to the opportunity to do that.
"If building a program is within reach, he's certainly a guy to do that."
O'Connell pursued the Bishop McLaughlin position when the school opened in 2003. He was offered the job but turned it down because his wife, Mary, found a lump in her breast. Months later she found out she did not have cancer.
When Steve Matesich recently resigned at Bishop McLaughlin for an opportunity to coach at Tampa Jesuit, Hurricanes athletic director Mike Zelenka opened the search for a replacement and called O'Connell.
O'Connell has spent the past week working on a practice schedule and getting his thoughts together.
"It's just like riding a bike," O'Connell said. "You never forget."