By JOHN SCHWARB
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 30, 2001
Lafayette County is 250 miles from St. Petersburg, but a world away.
Tucked in north-central Florida, west of Interstate 75 and south of I-10, Lafayette is as rural as Florida gets. There are no sprawling malls, no Outback Steakhouses, just miles of pine trees.
Mayo, the county seat, is a prototypical one-stoplight town. Actually, it's a flashing light, at the corner of Highways 51 and 27. Fewer than 1,000 people live in Mayo, and just 7,022 live in the county.
Lafayette is the second-smallest county by population in Florida. But it has something Pinellas County, the fifth-largest, does not.
Lafayette High School, home of the Hornets, has 236 students in grades 10-12. Thirty-one of those students are playing varsity football this year, and every one is aware of the trophy in the gym lobby.
The 1981 Class A football state championship trophy.
"We try to make them aware of the traditions of the past," coach Joey Pearson said. "And we were runner-up in 1997, too."
Pinellas has 131 times as many people as Lafayette, and its football-playing high schools outnumber Lafayette 23 to 1.
But not one has a football state championship trophy in the lobby.
Of Florida's 67 counties, Pinellas is far from the only one not to own a football championship since 1963, when the Florida High School Activities Association began its state finals.
In all, 23 counties claim the dubious honor. Among those are several one-school counties such as Liberty (the state's smallest, population 7,021), Glades (10,576) and Hamilton (13,327).
At the opposite end of the spectrum are quite a few larger counties. Volusia (population 443,343), including 11 football schools in and around Daytona Beach, has zero titles.
But Pinellas, with 921,482 residents, is an anomaly. None of the six other counties with populations of 750,000 or greater lacks a title (the population and schools leader, 2.25-million resident Miami-Dade, also leads in titles with 15). And no county with so many schools has avoided winning it all.
Coaches and administrators shake their head, shrug their shoulders or just laugh at the question. They know the history.
Most swear a title is attainable. But they also have theories as to why Pinellas, home to many great players over the years and dozens of titles in other sports, has come up empty in Florida's most popular sport.
The issue almost became moot on Dec. 19, 1986. Dunedin hosted Lakeland for the state Class 5A championship while 12 miles away, Tarpon Springs battled Fort Lauderdale Dillard for the 4A title.
Dunedin fell behind early and could not catch up in a 14-10 loss. Tarpon Springs led 6-0 with three minutes to play only to surrender two touchdowns and lose 14-6.
The next year, Dunedin again lost the 5A championship game at home, 24-0 to Pensacola Pine Forest.
That same year, 1987, East Lake High opened.
Dunedin has not been to the playoffs since. Tarpon Springs continues to be one of the county's top teams, but it, too, has yet to return to the state final. In the county, only Dixie Hollins in 1995 has participated in a title game since 1987.
No way, coaches say. How come an area with 23 teams can't win a state championship? Because there are 23 teams.
"It seems like such a small area to draw from," East Lake coach Tom Keeler said. "We have athletes. We have linemen. We have players. Right now, there's just too many schools."
In the past 25 years, five public schools have entered the football scene, bringing the total to 16 public and seven private schools.
Even in the state's most densely populated county, filling all of those teams might be asking too much. Given Pinellas' population, the ratio is one team for every 40,000 people.
Compare that to Manatee County (five football schools, seven state titles), which has one team for every 52,800 residents, and Sarasota County (five schools, two state titles), which has one team for every 65,000 people.
The result is a lack of depth that shows up when Pinellas teams play teams from outside of the county.
Tarpon Springs coach Don Davis remembers a 1997 playoff game his team played at Belleview. The Spongers led at the half, and Davis said he had seven or eight players playing offense and defense. He could not remember any two-way players on the opposing side.
"In the second half, (Belleview) just came out and did the exact same thing they did in the first half," Davis said. "It was a hot night, and I can remember going out and talking to the huddle. And (my players) were like wax. They just melted."
Tarpon Springs lost 28-21.
"I think the talent's there (to win)," Davis said. "But you've got to be lucky, and you've got to have depth."
Coaches know the road to riches doesn't end in the locker room. But Pinellas public school football coaches, operating in the seventh-largest school district in the state and 21st-largest in the nation, receive significantly less money than their peers in other counties.
Area head coaches make $2,758 per year, slightly more after several years with one school. Only 10 counties pay lower supplements to head football coaches.
A bigger concern to the head coaches is the lack of money available to assistants.
The county allows for three assistant coaches at $1,439 each and three junior varsity coaches at $1,199 each.
"After taxes, it's about $800 for all the time you're asking them to put in," Dixie Hollins coach Mike Morey said. "That's not very much considering spring football and all the summer days in the weight room."
Other counties pay more. Manatee County pays $3,106 to a "first assistant" to the head coach and $2,589 to five additional assistants. A junior varsity coach makes $2,589 and his assistant $2,072. Varsity coaches earn an extra $20 per day of practice and games during the playoffs.
In Polk County (where 17 high schools have combined for 10 state titles), seven assistants are allowed at a rate of $2,155 each. In Palm Beach County (25 high schools, 12 state titles), five varsity assistants and two junior varsity coaches are allotted $2,133.
Of course, supplement pay is no substitute for a full-time job. Many assistants count on landing salaried teaching positions. But in Pinellas, those jobs are not always readily available.
"It's much harder to get coaches in on campus," Countryside coach Joe Ionata said. "And you can't get players (without coaches). You can't follow them up. You can't follow their grades. You can't do discipline in the school."
Many coaches dislike the fact that Pinellas collects athletic revenues into a centralized pool and redistributes them countywide. Some cite it as at least a minor factor in the county's state title futility, though the lack of championships dates well before centralized funding's introduction in 1982.
"Centralized funding doesn't win or lose games," Keeler said. "But it's definitely something that draws away some of your attention. We've got to worry more about fundraising."
Centralized funds provide for uniforms and basic equipment. The county takes care of officials, transportation and security.
But other costs are uncovered. College recruiting tabs can run into the thousands as coaches prepare highlight tapes and rack up phone bills. Summer camps, also popular for exposure and development, require transportation funds and, in some cases, lodging and meal money.
Booster clubs are usually called on to underwrite these activities. But some coaches say outside funds would not be necessary if they could keep their own gate receipts.
Administrators, however, cite a harsh reality.
"If we didn't have centralized athletics," county athletic director Bob Hosack said, "some of our schools wouldn't have football."
The sight of 50 or more kids coming out for the junior varsity is not necessarily a delight for a coach.
Freshman football, a crucial cog of football factories in other counties, does not exist in Pinellas. Without it, both inexperienced and solid players are often forced to the sidelines as ninth-graders.
"Many of your linemen at some of the biggest schools, maybe they don't get much playing time as freshmen," Osceola coach George Palmer said. "You don't get a chance to develop them."
Junior varsity teams at some schools are bursting at the seams with sophomores and late-blooming juniors. Throw in freshmen, and the JV is more of a herd than a team.
"Freshmen get disinterested," Dunedin coach Mark Everett said. "If I went out for football as a ninth-grader and didn't get a chance to play at all, maybe now I'm playing Nintendo and skateboarding."
As a compromise, coaches have proposed an extra quarter solely for freshmen at the end of JV games. Hosack admits the coaches "have made some pretty good presentations," but still declines the proposals.
"If you start doing it for one sport, every other sport is out there wanting to do something similar," Hosack said.
As football season kicks off, optimism reigns. Several Pinellas teams will have winning seasons, and 10 or more could reach the playoffs.
None plan on just showing up.
Do the circumstances surrounding Pinellas County football make it impossible to win?
A peek across the bay might be disheartening for fans. Hillsborough County -- with a growing number of schools, centralized funding and no freshman football -- has fought a title drought since 1969.
But Hillsborough (population 998,948) owns titles. Three, in fact. Pinellas is still waiting for No. 1.
Coaches promise it's coming.
"I don't think Pinellas County is that far away from winning," Clearwater Central Catholic coach John Davis said. "I watched all the state championship games (from last season), and we could play with some of those teams.
"We've just got to get our focus on that we can win it. I think the focus has been that we can't. That's not the case. Our athletics are just as good."
- Times news researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.