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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.
Rick Rodriguez's extensive experience as an assistant is invaluable to Largo.
By BOB PUTNAM, Times Staff Writer
Published December 6, 2007
LARGO - Rick Rodriguez sits in his office and tells of his boyhood in Cuba, of how his father was a millionaire who lost everything when communism took control, of how he fled to the U.S. in 1961, then waited four years to reunite with his parents.
"We went through a lot of hardship," Rodriguez said. "We left with the clothes on our back."
It was fortuitous that Rodriguez learned patience early; for 16 years as an assistant at Clearwater he had to practice that virtue.
He bided his time while being passed over for head coaching jobs at Countryside, Dunedin, East Lake, Gibbs and Palm Harbor University.
Then, in 2000, Largo decided to hire him. Rodriguez has made the most of that opportunity.
This season he has a perfect record and the school's first state semifinal playoff berth against Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas to cap a lifetime of waiting.
"I saw what my family went through to get here, and I knew I had to work hard to achieve something," Rodriguez said. "That's something I tell my players all the time."
Rodriguez's rise to prominence is a saga so far from glamorous, so dogged, so typical of life in the ranks of high school coaching - and, in the end, so just in its rewards - that it warrants a full telling.
He started off as an offensive lineman at Hialeah High from 1968-70 before moving to Northeast in '71 for his senior season.
From there, he went to Delta State, where he became a first-team captain. After graduating in 1977, he went on to coach at Ripley, Tenn., (1977-83) and Clearwater (1984-99).
He finally got his big break at Largo.
"Largo was a school I always thought could be great at football," Rodriguez said. "The kids are good workers; they don't mind getting dirty."
Rodriguez knew the facilities were not fit for a team with playoff aspirations. The field house and weight room needed face lifts.
He persuaded others to pledge their support. Now, the locker rooms are refurbished, there is fresh paint inside and out, and air conditioning units have been installed.
But the facilities are nothing compared with the improvements on the field. Rodriguez spent time putting together a solid coaching staff that ranks as one of the best in the county.
"Rick is one the hardest workers I know," defensive coordinator Matt LePain said. "The best thing about him is he lets his coaches coach."
The Packers have become the class of the county with three straight district titles and the school's first undefeated regular season in 30 years.
And with little fanfare, Rodriguez has joined the pantheon of top coaches. He may not invite the attention, but it is hard to imagine Rodriguez not being able to handle it.
Through the years
Rodriguez's assistants, their coaching positions and years under Rodriguez:
Name Position Years
Matt LePain Defensive coordinator 5
Dave Angelo Offensive coordinator 5
Drew Heuertz Special teams 3
Ryan Taylor Receivers 4
Jeremy Frioud Defensive line 6
Eric Wilson Linebackers 8
Eugene Davis Defensive backs 5
If You Go
Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (12-1) at Largo (13-0)
When: Friday,7:30 p.m.
At stake: A berth in the Class 5A state final Dec. 14 at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
TV: Catch 47 will broadcast Friday's game live.
Tickets: $7. No advance sales. The ticket booth at the school will open at 6 p.m. Friday.