CLEARWATER — As his players were entrenched in the on-field delirium after last week’s state semifinal win, Clearwater Central Catholic coach John Davis took a moment to reflect.
After 20 seasons of long hours and sleep-deprived nights, Davis had fulfilled a lifelong dream of coaching in a state championship game. On Saturday, he will direct the Marauders (11-2) against Jacksonville Trinity Christian (11-1) in the Class 3A final at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
“I’ve been on a cloud ever since,” Davis said. “Even on the car ride home after last week’s win, I would just kind of look around and say to myself, ‘Man, I’m coaching for a state championship.’ ”
But Davis, 59, a hometown star who played quarterback at Dixie Hollins from 1969-71, will not be given a parade by his coaching brethren if he happens to become the first coach from Pinellas County to win a state title.
During Davis’ coaching career, he has been considered by many to be an outsider. His approach to operating his program — from attracting elite talent to his playing style — is markedly different from some of his contemporaries. Compared with some of those grizzled veterans, Davis is a renegade.
“I’m probably not the most well-liked guy in this county, but I’m definitely enjoying this moment,” Davis said.
Davis’ wide-open style of play began in high school, where he ranked among Pinellas County’s leaders in passing. Among his teammates was former USF defensive coordinator Rick Kravitz, now the coach at Gibbs.
“We practically grew up together,” Kravitz said. “I was a lineman at the time and probably responsible for getting him killed because I didn’t block very well.”
Davis also was a standout baseball player and was named MVP of the Dunedin Tournament in 1972. He was good enough to land a scholarship at Arkansas State.
When Davis graduated from college, he planned to become a high school baseball coach. But the combination of day and night games proved too difficult to manage with his job at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
In 1979, Davis got a call from Kravitz, at the time a junior varsity coach at Lakewood.
“Rick told me he was coaching high school football and it was a blast,” Davis said. “He said I would love it.
“He was right. I fell in love with it.”
Davis had coaching stints as an assistant at Lakewood and Osceola in the 1980s before taking over CCC in 1994. He went 52-36 in eight seasons and guided the program to playoff appearances in his last six seasons, including four district titles. He left in 2002 to go to Countryside, where he went 66-24 and made the playoffs in seven of eight seasons.
Four years ago, he came back to coach the Marauders and has brought the program to even greater heights, culminating with Saturday’s appearance in the state final.
Davis has been successful by implementing a multifaceted offense and elevating the program with upgrades such as new helmets and uniforms that helped breathe new life into programs that have gone stale.
“The big thing with John is he is always evolving as a coach,” Kravitz said. “Whenever college coaches came by his school, he would always try to pick their brain, especially with whatever they were doing on offense. He’s always creative and trying to stay a step ahead.”
And Davis motivates without a finger in the chest or a rant in the ear. He uses positive reinforcement. He treats his players the way a good boss treats an employee or teacher treats a student.
That style has even won over some in the county coaching fraternity. Former Lakewood coach Brian Bruch enrolled his son, Dallas, at CCC and Brian joined the coaching staff.
“It’s a great school, and John has put together a great football program,” Bruch said. “The kids are exposed to high-quality coaching, and that attracts other players. And John coaches and treats kids the right away without demeaning them.”
This week has been a whirlwind for Davis, with media teleconferences and meetings as well as the flood of congratulatory calls from former players and current coaches.
“It’s been an awfully fun week,” Davis said. “I’m still pinching myself. I just hope we can do something on the field to make it even more memorable.”