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Coach awaits cap on career

After 31 seasons as a head football coach, Chamberlain High's Billy Turner will finally roam the sideline in the state title game.

By MIKE READLING
© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 4, 2001


TAMPA -- One by one, the grapefruits would plop to the ground like big baseballs falling from the sky.

With each hollow thud, Billy Turner and his brothers would inch closer to the fruits, waiting for their dad to finish shaking the tree so they could pick them up and start loading the truck. When the branches stopped shaking, and the chance of getting conked on the head by some citrus was over, the boys would scurry over and start gathering the fruit.

While everybody else was just heaving the fruit into the truck, Turner was pretending they were footballs. Dropping back and throwing the fruit like a long pass to a wide-open receiver was one of his favorite games.

It was also the beginning of his way out of the less-than-average conditions endured by citrus pickers during that time and the foundation for an athletic story rivaled by few others.

The latest chapter will be added Friday night when Turner's Chamberlain Chiefs take on Naples in the Class 5A state football championship at Doak Campbell Stadium on the Florida State University campus.

A win would provide Hillsborough County with its first state football champion since 1969 and provide Turner, who never had won a playoff game until five weeks ago, with the crowning moment in what has been one of the most legendary coaching careers this area has ever seen.

The setting was Auburndale, late in the 1940s. Turner and his family moved there when he was in second grade, trading in the cotton fields of Moulton, Ala., a tiny town on the banks of Big Nance Creek, for the citrus farms of Polk County.

He doesn't know why his parents stopped there, doesn't know why he didn't grow up in Winter Haven or Lakeland or Frostproof or Avon Park, even. He just knows that while he was there, his parents picked, peeled and sectioned the fruit by hand for the Adams Packing Company, and he worked on his quarterbacking techniques.

"That's how I learned to throw a football," Turner said. "Throwing grapefruits into pickup trucks on weekends."

Turner, 64, attended Auburndale High, graduating in 1956 as the star of a football program that won its final 20 games and won the Class A state title his junior and senior year. He helped lead the basketball team, which averaged 97 points per game, owned a 56-game winning streak and also won state titles his final two years.

As a track star, he was offered a scholarship to the University of Florida if he could break the state record at the state meet. Needing to run a 4:32 mile, he finished the first half in 2:11 but tired at the end, barely missing the mark and finishing second. Auburndale won the state title, anyway.

"I remember the first time I ever saw him, I was playing basketball at Winter Park High and Billy Turner and Auburndale were coming over to play us," said Billy Howell, Chamberlain's running backs coach. "We were on an 18-game winning streak and they were in the middle of their 56-game winning streak. They beat the crap out of us.

"He was sort of a legend coming over. I remember it distinctively. We all respected him and I sort of followed his career after that."

From Auburndale, Turner enrolled at the University of Tampa, earning varsity letters in football, basketball and baseball all four years.

He played for Sam Bailey, the coach for whom UT's baseball field is named, and marveled at Tampa, the big city.

"I was scared to death to walk through downtown Tampa at night," Turner said. "It was the big city. I was always looking over my shoulder, afraid that the Mafia was going to kill me. I used to run through Plant Park to get to the school because I was afraid."

While Tampa was a big city, the University of Tampa was not. In fact, it was one building.

Dormitories were on the fourth floor, classrooms on the third, the cafeteria on the second and administration on the first. Turner used to wake up at 6:55 to make his 7 a.m. class on time.

When he tried to skip baseball his senior season, Bailey's wife talked him out of it. He wound up meeting a student named Lucy that season. They celebrated their 41st anniversary Nov. 24, one day after Chamberlain beat Kissimmee Osceola in the region final.

"I'm glad she talked me out of it," Turner said. "I got to letter all four years, and I fell in love."

While with the Spartans, Turner honed his quarterbacking skills.

After graduation, Turner wound up as Howell's running backs coach, splitting time between coaching at UT and playing for semi-pro teams like the Orlando Broncos, Tampa Buccaneers in 1960 and the St. Pete Blazers.

He got paid $200 a game and raised enough eyebrows to get signed to a contract with the Buffalo Bills for the 1963-64 season. Still not sure how he did it, Turner found himself in training camp as a backup to Jack Kemp and standing next to a rookie named Daryle Lamonica, who had just been drafted out of Notre Dame.

"I got cut two days later," Turner said. "I don't know how I even got there."

So he returned to Hillsborough County and took up coaching.

It started with a spring as head coach at East Bay, traveled to Auburndale where he served as an assistant and then returned to coach with Roland Acosta at Monroe Junior High. Then, it was on to Hillsborough High in 1968 where his first team went 10-1.

He came to Chamberlain in 1979, became the all-time county leader with wins in 1997, is one win away from No. 200, and will make his first appearance in the state title game.

"Around here, we like to think of him as an outstanding person on and off the field. He's loved by everyone at Chamberlain," said Chamberlain principal Henry Washington, a former King coach who used to coach against Turner. "After being in coaching for 40 years, he deserves to go to the state title game."

He deserves it not just because of coaching longevity but also due to coaching integrity.

Turner does not recruit athletes. He still uses note cards written in marker and tacked to a board as a depth chart and he believes strongly in loyalty.

And the players who stay with him feel like they leave Chamberlain as better people.

"It's amazing. I always felt like we let him down because we didn't win a playoff game," said Orlando Predators coach Jay Gruden, who graduated from Chamberlain in 1985. "I've got nothing but good things to say about him. He's always been a great coach and a great guy. He's great for high school football in the state of Florida and I'm a better person because I played for him."

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