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Armwood and Sean Callahan: 25 years of grit, grind and gains

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Thu. August 28, 2014 | John C. Cotey | Email

Armwood and Sean Callahan: 25 years of grit, grind and gains

SEFFNER — When Jonathan Ordway was in middle school, his classmates teased him.

Not about what he wore, or what was in his lunchbox, or the way he looked.

Instead, they could not believe he was actually going to attend Armwood High School.

“Armpit High School,” Ordway said they called it.

Back then, he says, Brandon was the place to be if you played football. Armwood was a place to avoid.

But Ordway and quarterback Joey Gerena arrived in 1993; Mike Pearson arrived a year later.

Things got better.

“I think we were like four teams’ Homecoming games my first year there,” said Ordway, who became an all-state defensive back. “But that changed.”

Sean Callahan made it change, the only way he knows how, with hard work and dedication, with a special class of players willing to buy into his plans and with the right coaches to pull it all together.

“It all started with Coach Callahan,” Ordway said. 

• • •

Armwood begins the year ranked No. 1 in the HomeTeam 25, ready to make another run at a third state championship, with another team stocked with Division I recruits like defensive end Byron Cowart, linebacker Jordan Griffin and defensive back Aaron Covington.

When season kicks off tonight against Durant, it will mark Callahan’s 25th season coaching the Armwood Hawks.

In that time, he has officially won 195 games and established his program as one of the biggest and baddest in the state.

Any season that Armwood doesn’t win a state championship, the Hawks and their followers in Seffner consider it incomplete.

A failure, even.

“I don’t even sit down and set goals anymore,” he said, because there’s only one, and it never changes.

Success.

“Some of the most exciting days were when nobody expected us to do anything,” Callahan said. “Our big thing used to be just having a winning record.”

And that turned out to be harder than Callahan ever thought it would be.

He was an unknown defensive coordinator on a terrible football team that had just completed an 0-10 season when he was hired by Lyle Flagg to coach Armwood in 1990.

His first win was a 10-0 victory over Plant, but he won three games or fewer in four of his first five seasons.

“I think after that second season, I told my wife, ‘I just don’t know if this is for me,’” Callahan said.

He was calling the offense and defense. Reliable assistants were sparse. The hours were long, the losing was tiring.

But when Doug Erwin was hired as principal, he hired three assistant coaches for Callahan, including Tom Allen, now coaching linebackers at Ole Miss, and Shannon O’Brien, an assistant coach at a college in Tennessee.

They set up a program based on strength. Offseason conditioning would become a routine, the weight room would be a second home for the players.

Ordway, born and raised in Seffner, laughs. “Some of the parents were mad about it,” he said. “But if you didn’t run and lift, it was going to be held over your head. You had to work if you wanted to play.”

Guys like Ordway and Gerena and Pearson were eager to water the seeds Callahan was planting.

“Those are the guys that bought into the toughness and working hard, and made the difference,” Callahan said. “They helped me turn the corner.”

Players no longer avoided Armwood. And Callahan was able to hire coaches who stuck around, like longtime defensive coordinator Matt Thompson and offensive coordinator Chris Taylor, giving the program continuity during its high times. 

• • •

Armpit High became Strong Arm High. The Hawks went to the playoffs for the first time in 1996, advanced to the state semifinals in 2000, and in 2003 became the first public school team in Hillsborough County to win a state championship since Blake in 1969. 

Armwood evolved into Tampa Bay’s most dominant program, where it has remained, though it now shares the stage with arch-rival Plant.

The Hawks may not always have the fastest, sleekest and most electrifying players, but they almost always have the strongest.

“When you play for Coach Cal, he is going to get the best out of you, whether you like it or not,” linebacker Jordan Griffin said. “He’ll find a way.”

Intimidation has been the Hawks’ calling card.

“Smash you in the mouth,” Ordway said.

“Brute force,” said Thompson, now the head coach at Jesuit.

It hasn’t always made the Hawks the most popular team outside of city limits, though it is one of the endearing things about the program. In so many ways, they represent the city in which they play.

“Tough town, with tough people,” Callahan said of Seffner, where he has lived for 27 years, just a few miles from the school.

• • •

Callahan has turned down offers to be a college assistant, was a finalist for the Bradenton Manatee job in 2003, and in 2006 was a finalist for a $90,000 a year job with far better facilities in Valdosta, Ga.

But he has resisted each temptation, married to the program he built from scratch.

In 2011, it almost all came tumbling down. Arguably the best team in school history, a perfect 15-0 on the field, was investigated by the Florida High School Athletic Association on charges of recruiting and residency issues.

Recruiting was never proven, but five players were cited for falsifying residency claims. The Hawks were fined $12,743 and stripped of 26 wins over the 2010 and ’11 seasons, including the state championship game.

Callahan maintains his innocence and laments what he perceives as an administrative failure and lack of support.

“It was a difficult time, a very tough period,’’ he said. “We didn’t get a lot of support.”

In the aftermath of the sanctions, Armwood went 9-4 in 2012, but again made a playoff run. Last year, they returned to the state final, losing to Miami Central.

It has been exceptionally satisfying to Callahan that the program he has built remains one of the best in the state.

“I think a lot of people thought Sean Callahan was done, and the Armwood football program was done,” he said. “But we’re still here.’’

And still on top.

• • •

Callahan remains admired and loved by many of his former players.

Ordway is now coaching at Jesuit, with Thompson and Gerena. He remembers driving by Armwood over the years, at all hours of the day, seeing Callahan’s car in the parking lot. He can tell you the year and make of each of the cars the coach has owned in 25 years.

When Thompson called him and asked him to help at Jesuit, Ordway’s first call was to Callahan.

“I still bleed blue and gray,” he said. “I needed his blessing.”

Other players like Oklahoma’s Erik Striker, Florida’s Matt Jones and Alvin Bailey, and Vanderbilt’s Josh Grady are regulars at Hawk practices, time permitting.

They call the younger players before big games. They remind them of the tradition.

“I’ll never forget my sophomore year, we were getting ready to play Gainesville in the playoffs, and Erik Striker calls Coach Thompson and said Jordan needs to be ready to go,” Griffin recalled.

“When I leave, I plan on doing the same thing.”

Contact John C. Cotey at cotey@tampabay.com. Follow @JohnnyHomeTeam.

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