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Ex-coach at the center of school name debate

J. Crockett Farnell was a legendary coach in the 1940s and an impressive school superintendent. But he left office under a cloud, and that has some New Tampa residents questioning whether a new school should bear his name.

By LOGAN D. MABE

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 28, 2001


TAMPA PALMS -- For years, decades really, a group of men waited respectfully for the right time to honor their old coach.

J. Crockett Farnell didn't believe that schools should be named after the living. So the men, now about 150 former Hillsborough High School students, respected his wishes and remained silent.

When Farnell died in 1999 the men, many now in their 70s, quietly launched a campaign to have a school named after him.

Two years later, they're asking the School Board to grant that honor when they open a new high school in Tampa Palms. The board will make a decision on the name at Tuesday's 6 p.m. meeting.

"He helped so many kids," said former Tampa Mayor Bill Poe, co-chairman of the committee formed to honor Farnell. "I think that he had an effect on almost every administrator and administration that came after him."

Farnell was a legendary football coach at Hillsborough High School in the 1940s, winning the hearts of the young men who played for him and a couple of state championships along the way.

For 17 years, Farnell was a popular and innovative superintendent of the Hillsborough County school system who helped bring education here into the modern age. Although he was elected to five consecutive four-year terms, Farnell left his post in dishonor in 1967 when he was convicted of embezzlement on charges that he used school property for personal gain.

That conviction was overturned 11/2 years later when an appellate court ruled that it hinged on the perjured testimony of a school district employee.

The shadow, coupled with the fact that Farnell had no connection with New Tampa, has some parents there opposing the idea of naming the school for him.

"I want you to know that I am completely against the name of Crocket Farnell," Christine and Mark Wood of Tampa Palms wrote to district officials. "I don't feel that the school should be named after someone because they won a lot of football games and was most well known for stealing."

Tampa Palms resident Terry Wolford also sent a letter urging the board to choose another name.

"As a board member of the New Tampa Community Council and active Tampa Palms PTA parent for over eight years, I feel that the name of our new schools should mean something to our New Tampa community," Wolford wrote. "While Farnell may have been a wonderful coach, educator, and terrific person in the hearts of those from Hillsborough High School, his name holds very little significance to those of us in the New Tampa area who have worked for many years to improve and enhance our childrens' education."

In addition, several hundred residents signed petitions opposing the name.

The Farnell campaign is a massive effort that is sure to get the attention of board members. The committee put together a 15-page list of Farnell's accomplishments during his 25-year career. And at least 80 former athletes who played football or basketball for Farnell from 1942 to 1948 wrote letters of support.

The effort also has the backing of about 20 influential Hillsborough High graduates whose lives he touched. In addition to Poe, they include former board member Ben Hill (who has a middle school named after him); Holland & Knight attorney Warren Cason; former Board of Regents chairman Dennis Ross; Garry Smith, former chief of staff for Gov. Bob Graham, former state attorney Joe Spicola; and retired Tampa Electric Co. executive Haywood Turner.

While it is an imposing group, the members hope Farnell will be judged on his record.

They point out that Farnell:

Moved white teachers into formerly all-black schools, and placed black teachers on the same pay schedule as white teachers.

Successfully sued the Hillsborough County tax assessor to institute fair property taxation, which greatly increased the district's funding.

Built 56 new schools, renovated 50 more and ordered additions to another 30 during his 17 years as superintendent.

Went 61-8, with two undefeated seasons, in his seven-year tenure as football coach.

"He just built a great following," Poe said. "We all new coach Farnell, and we decided it was now the appropriate thing to do. He was a great friend to many of us."

- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 813-226-3464.

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