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USF assistant proves you can go home again

Rich Rachel, who coached in the 1960s and '70s in Tampa, is thrilled to be with Bulls.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000


TAMPA -- The South Florida football team will observe homecoming on Saturday.

Rich Rachel began celebrating his return four months ago.

It was then that the former Chamberlain High School coach received a call from USF coach Jim Leavitt that shocked and delighted him: an offer to come back to Tampa and coach the defensive backs.

And it was then that a nearly three decadeslong journey brought Rachel full circle in his career -- and life.

"I never, ever dreamed that I would have a chance to come back," Rachel said. "I talked to Coach Leavitt a couple of times and he just didn't have anything for me. I never thought I would be able to come back and coach football in the city of Tampa."

The last time Rachel lived in Tampa, it was 1974. The USF campus was mostly composed of two main buildings and two racquetball courts off Fletcher Avenue and there was "a lot more sand" than concrete.

At least that's the way he remembers it.

Twenty-six years and seven coaching jobs later, Rachel is back in the city where his high school coaching career began as a young man trying to make a difference during the tumultuous days of integration in Hillsborough County.

Back where his college coaching career began -- and abruptly ended -- during the final days of the University of Tampa's football team.

Back in the place where he says his heart always has been.

Rachel's memories and roots run deep.

He began coaching in 1969 as Chamberlain's junior varsity coach, then was an assistant varsity coach for three seasons. At age 26, he was hired by then-athletic director Ron Allan to take over the Chamberlain program.

"I felt he had a lot of potential, even at that young age," said Allan, now deputy commissioner for the Florida High School Activities Association. "Rich is one of my favorite people, no question about it. He was an inspirational person, an outstanding man."

Rachel spent just one year at Chamberlain, but it stands out as one of the most important times in his life, he said. He helped integrate the football team.

"I was excited about integrating the school," Rachel said. "I went around to all the junior highs and spoke to all of our feeder junior highs. In the spring, we got 15 of those kids to come out. We didn't have an activity bus, so I promised the moms we'd make sure they got home. The staff and myself took the kids home every night at 8:30 after spring practice. I had a little old Volkswagen van and my line coach had a truck. We took them home and dropped them off back in Hillsborough district."

Rachel admits that integrating the team wasn't the easiest thing to do. But Allan said it was Rachel's personality that helped make the transition easier.

"It was difficult for everyone I think," Allan said. "We had the satellite students that came into Chamberlain and they didn't feel welcome and the students that were there didn't feel comfortable. It was tough. But Rich was just so enthusiastic and displayed so much with-it-ness. I would have been proud to have my sons play for him."

After one year at the helm of Chamberlain, Rachel took a job as an assistant coach at University of Tampa, where he stayed one year until the program was closed in 1974. He landed a job at King High, and later that year, Morehead State. That was the beginning of several stops for Rachel, including Kansas, North Carolina State, Kansas State and Rutgers.

It was during his six seasons at Rutgers that Rachel met Leavitt.

"Keith Bryant was a defensive end at Largo High School and everybody in the country was recruiting him," Leavitt said. "I feel like I work as hard as anybody, but every time I thought I had an edge, Rachel popped up. He outworked me. He just did a great job. Florida, FSU and Miami were on this guy and he ended up going to Rutgers. He did a heck of a job. That's when I first met him and started thinking "Who is this guy?' "

Leavitt said he followed Rachel's career and the first job opening he had that Rachel might fit, he called him.

The Bulls defensive players think Leavitt made the right decision.

"He's a real good guy to play for," senior Anthony Henry said. "He keeps your confidence up. If you make mistakes, he corrects you but he corrects you in a positive way. That's the most positive thing you can do as a coach. He brought a lot of enthusiasm to us and he respected us -- from seniors to freshmen. He has helped us out a lot."

Rachel, 53, had been out of coaching for 11 months when he was hired as an assistant at Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College last year. He was on vacation and visiting his sister in Isle of Palms, off the coast of Charleston, S.C., when the call from Leavitt came.

Rachel was out mowing the grass.

Rachel said his only hesitation in taking the USF job was his loyalty to his employers at Fort Scott. In the end, he couldn't fight his desire to return.

"It was a chance to come back home," Rachel said. "I was born and raised in Miami, lived in Dade County my whole life until I was 17 and left for college. I came here right out of college and got my first job. I have friends that still live in Miami, but I consider this home." It was also a chance to help prove a theory Rachel has had for 24 years. Tampa is big enough for the Bucs and the Bulls.

"In the old days, the former president of the University of Tampa said the community couldn't support the Buccaneers and a major (college) program, that's why he pulled the plug," Rachel said. "Now you look at the Bucs and USF being supported in one stadium; it's unbelievable. But I knew it could happen. I knew it could. That's why it's tremendous to be here and be part of what this is and what it represents, late in my career. I still feel young at heart and still love being around the players and coaches."

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