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Dolphins step into the big time


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000

Jacksonville coach Steve Gilbert can remember the day he first set foot on the north Florida campus where he was to build a successful football team.

He saw a school with an enrollment of just over 2,000 and not much else. If he squinted, he could just make out the female-to-male ratio evening out, and if he closed his eyes completely he could envision a competitive Division 1-AA non-scholarship program.

This is the season that dream comes true.

Starting Sept. 2 against Lenoir Rhyne Gilbert, the Dolphins enter their first season of total I-AA competition and their final season before joining the Pioneer Football League, a newly formed nine-team conference.

"When the administration started football, they wanted to do something to create more male enrollment and an activity on campus for students to participate in," Gilbert said. "And they have done that. Coming to Jacksonville, I literally stepped foot on campus and remember them not having anything. Didn't have a desk or a secretary. I have some fond memories, but I don't think it's something I'd ever do again."

Chances are, Gilbert won't have to worry about starting football programs from scratch any time soon. He has a roster of about 120 players, 110 from Florida, with two seniors and a talented crop of sophomores and juniors ready to take the Dolphins to the next level.

Jacksonville will be led by quarterback Gary Cooper, a junior who threw for 1,208 yards and eight touchdowns last season.

Cooper has been with Jacksonville since the program's first year and has taken the majority of the snaps. He could be challenged by sophomore Greg Kannapel, but chances are Cooper will lead the team through its first 11-game season.

"Gary's the kind of guy we're going to call on to call the right plays, get in right formation, that type of thing," Gilbert said. "We're going to put a lot on his shoulders. He had a tremendous spring practice and he's going to be asked to do quite a bit."

The Dolphins will be without star receiver Rico Tillman, a sophomore last season who was Jacksonville's all-time leader in receptions and touchdowns. In a story recounted by America's Most Wanted, Tillman was murdered outside a Miami nightclub during the off-season. The team will honor Tillman by wearing a "T" on its helmets this season.

The loss of Tillman (32 catches, 474 yards, 2 TDs) does more than hurt the team's receiving corps. Gilbert was very close to the receiver out of Miami Northwestern High, and he took the news hard.

"We will all have him in our thoughts during this season," Gilbert said. "This is my 21st year of coaching and I've had players and family members who have passed away, but this one really hit home. Rico and I were extremely close. He was a very important part of my life, and our team will remember him as we head into this season."

This season marks the first time Jacksonville will play a full schedule against equal competition. The Dolphins went 4-5 and 3-6 against schools ranging from I-AA to Division III and NAIA. This season, Gilbert has lined up 10 regular-season games and a "Bowl game" against schools the same size as Jacksonville.

The final game will be Nov. 24 against Fairfield University at Disney's Wide World of Sports.

"We have a very, very competitive schedule this year," Gilbert said. "The game against Fairfield we're going to treat as a bowl game. That will be a great experience for us. They're one of the top I-AA programs in the country that are non-scholarship. It will give us an idea of where we are competitively."

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