Football: Where are the wins?

Coach Jason Stokes is determined to write a new chapter in Bloomingdale football's history.

Published January 9, 2008

VALRICO - New Bloomingdale football coach Jason Stokes admitted he was befuddled by the situation.

The former Riverview assistant couldn't understand why Bloomingdale, in 21 years, never put together a winning season.

The school sits in a growing part of East Hillsborough that's hardly bare of talent; nearby schools built after Bloomingdale (Durant, Newsome) boast winning seasons. In one year, Sickles went from 0-10 to 7-3.

"You always kind of wonder, what in the world is going on?" Stokes said. "It's still kind of a mystery why they haven't been winning."

Stokes, a 32-year-old former Wall Street trader, hopes to offer answers Monday in his first meeting with parents and players; Stokes and athletic director Danielle Shotwell echo that "everything is in place to win."

But as former Bulls coaches, players and parents attest, the program has been plagued by a perfect storm of a losing culture compounded by apathy and a lack of offseason commitment. Said former Bull Chris Ong, "You can put Jimmy Johnson in there and he couldn't do better than 2-8."

"You're talking about a losing culture that has been there for two decades," said former Bloomingdale star and assistant Brian Surcy. "... When you're trying to change that culture, it's not an overnight work."

Building a base

Tony Thomas, arguably one of Bloomingdale's most decorated athletes, says the area has boasted plenty of talented players.

The problem, he said, is many jump from the youth leagues to rival schools, avoiding Bloomingdale as if it were detention.

"There was a guy who lived on my street," said Thomas, a 2004 grad and former FSU baseball standout now in the Cubs' minor-league organization. "And he went to Riverview."

Stokes said he plans to "recruit the hallways" hard, and a big challenge is "keeping the kids who are supposed to go to Bloomingdale," not to mention keeping kids from jumping ship. Junior receiver Gregg LaClair said because of injuries and people quitting, the Bulls' roster dropped last season from 40 to 26. LaClair considered transferring until Stokes came to his home, offering passion and commitment to offseason workouts he said was lacking from previous staffs.

LaClair said in previous seasons the Bulls would begin weightlifting in January, but "a lot of people were messing around and not working." One of Stokes' pledges is that the Bulls get stronger, and that the team builds a "competitive atmosphere." He plans to create a Web site where Bulls can track their results in the weight room - and on the field.

Sports psychologist Shane Murphy said coaches fighting losing cultures must use the little things to change the mind-set before behavior kicks in. He pointed to the Rutgers football program, which has become a Big East power after failing to reach a bowl game for 27 consecutive seasons. Murphy said a couple years ago the Scarlet Knights brought in a psychologist, who sold the team on the basics with the metaphor of chipping away like they would a tree in the forest; each practice, workout was a step.

"You can't build off any concrete success, so it has to be success in the little things," said Murphy, a professor at Western Connecticut State University. "It's usually that what turns that sort of losing streak around."



Turnaround tips

Sickles coach Pat O'Brien and Tampa Bay Tech's C.C. Culpepper know a thing or two about breaking through a losing culture. O'Brien led the Gryphons from 0-10 a season ago to 7-3 and a playoff berth this season. Culpepper's Titans went 6-4 following back-to-back 0-10 years. Here are their keys to success:

1) Team building: The Titans did car washes and other activities to build a "family atmosphere."

2) Offseason conditioning: Sickles used a strength and conditioning program, "Bigger, Faster, Stronger."

3) Get players invested: Sickles has a "player's council" that decides athletes' punishment for violating team rules.

4) Stay involved: Have staff on site (a big Stokes' push) monitoring grades and involuntary workouts.

5) Be genuine: "Show you care," Culpepper said. "You can talk all you want, but if there's three coaches in three years, they don't know if you'll be here today and gone tomorrow."

Joe Smith, Times staff writer