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Championship week about more than the game

© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 7, 2001

The last county school to play in a football state final was Hillsborough in 1996 at Daytona Beach Municipal Stadium. Hillsborough was 13-1 after winning four playoff games at home. The Terriers lost the final 21-7 to Miami Carol City, but Hillsborough coach Earl Garcia said it was an experience he thinks about almost every day. Garcia recently shared some perspective on his 1996 state championship week with Times staff writer Scott Purks.

* * *

People might think when you play in a state championship football game you just hop on the bus, travel somewhere, play the game and then come home.

But nothing could be further from the truth. People have no idea what goes on behind the scenes.

You've got to remember that high school is a do-it-yourself league. If you want something done, you just don't have that many people to turn to. I can guarantee right now coach (Billy) Turner is running around in a hundred different directions because he has so many things to take care of.

First, there's the media crunch. Between a regular-season and a playoff game you probably have twice the media responsibilities as a head coach. Then when you get to the state semifinals, it's about 10 times more media responsibilities. Then when you get to the final, you need a media relations person to come in and help.

During state championship week, you have every newspaper, television station and radio station from your town, the hosting town and the opposing town trying to get interviews. Then there's some media you don't even think about. Shoot, I even had an interview with ESPN that week.

At the same time, you have to find the hotel and put rooming assignments together for your players, which takes a lot of time. When you're doing the room assignments, you have to make sure all the knuckleheads aren't together. You have to make sure to spread the knuckleheads evenly throughout the floor plan of the hotel. The guys that need more maintenance need to be closer to the coaches.

You need to have the coaches spread strategically throughout the hotel to make sure the players are following the itinerary, which includes when to sleep, when to eat and when the activities are planned.

When we played in '96, it was Dec. 21, so my wife and the community got into the Christmas spirit a bit. We had thousands of dollars of donations from businesses, but we had to put it all together. So every night after practice, we were stuffing bags with bottled water, candy, chips, fruit, all sorts of stuff. By the time we left for Daytona, after getting about 2 hours of sleep a night, each player had a goodie bag full of food with his number on it.

At the hotel, we rented two rooms to make a players' lounge, which we set up with three televisions, rented movies, Sega games and a Christmas tree with red bulbs that had each players' number on them. There are probably a hundred other similar details that I'm probably forgetting about. And one thing you should remember is that all the stuff I've been talking about has nothing to do with the football game. It has nothing to do with trying to find out what kind of coverages (the opposing team is) in, or what kind of scheme they're running on offense or any of that coaching stuff.

But somehow, you have to find the time to coach the practices, watch the films. You have to find the time to get all the coaching in because this is the most important moment of your high school football life.

The thing I told Billy is that you can't be happy just to be there. When you get that close you have to make the most of it. A couple of days after the championship game it hit me that, man, we were so close. And who knows, I might never get that chance to get back there again. Many people never get a chance to get there at all. So I hope Chamberlain makes the most of it.

But no matter what happens, it will be an experience that team will never forget.

When those Chamberlain players meet for their 10-year reunion, the championship game will be the first thing they talk about. Then, 10 years later, it will be the first thing they talk about again, and then at their 30-year and their 40-year reunions it will be the same.

No doubt about it, it will always be that way. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing, a chance to be a state football champion.

How could it not be one of the greatest experiences of those players' lives?

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