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Mon. April 11, 2011 | John C. Cotey | Email

Column: Leto job takes patience, fortitude

TAMPA — This is what rock bottom looks like.

Zero wins on the field. Two touchdowns. Ten games.

Arguably the worst season of football ever produced by any football team in Tampa Bay history.

And now, no coach.

Even by Leto High School's modest football standards, which have been skimming across the bottom for a decade now, 2010 was a supreme disaster.

The question, then is, as school officials look yet again for a coach to turn things around, after Mike Jalazo resigned just weeks before spring practice begins, does such a man exist?

Can anyone win at Leto?

The school is already setting up interviews this week for eager, unemployed coaches, all convinced they can do something no one else has in the past decade.

They are saints, these applicants.

"I think right now it's probably the most difficult head job in Hillsborough County,'' said longtime Hillsborough High head coach Earl Garcia.

That is not in dispute. A car with balding tires driving in the emergency lane with its hazards on for years, the program drove right into the ditch last year, leaving what amounts to an expansion team for any coach willing to try his hand at miracles.

While never wildly successful, the Falcons have had some moderate success, including a 10-win season in 1978 and a handful of playoff appearances.

Alex Albert had five winning seasons, including his last in 1997, and the two seasons after that Andy Martin guided the Falcons to a 15-8 overall mark, a district title and the school's only playoff win. But their loss in the second round of the playoffs in 1999 was the start of a 15-game losing streak, and the program has never returned to contention.

Since Martin quit in 2002 following a second 0-10 season, the Falcons have had four head coaches.

Only Hugh Dehnert, who coached from 2006-09 and appeared to have the program on the right track, lasted longer than two seasons.

• • •

So, what are the obstacles?

Some say demographics. The school is located in a poor area where many kids don't grow up playing football, and those who do sometimes have to choose a job over practice.

Even then, the talent pool at Leto has seemingly been subsiding over the years.

Some say the problem lies with an administration that is not supportive and unwilling to provide coaches with the tools (assistants, equipment, etc.) they need to run a proper program.

And the coaching instability is hardly the kind of stuff successful programs are built on.

All those things have led to losing, which has cemented Leto's lousy image.

And in today's age of athletes obsessing over scholarships, parents being willing to move their kids to winning programs, and kids recruiting other kids via Facebook and text messaging, image is everything.

"It's tough, and they have to overcome that,'' said Mike Heldt, "because there's a lot of kids who decide not to go to Leto before they even step foot (in high school).''

Heldt played at Leto in the mid 1980s and was a Falcons assistant three seasons before getting the head coaching job at Alonso.

He has previously thought about applying for the job at his alma mater, but this time says, "I would be afraid.''

Another former Leto standout, current Carrollwood Day coach Lane McLaughlin, said there are "dark shadows" over the program.

Can anyone bring in the sunshine?

"I would love to see it happen,'' said McLaughlin, though he won't predict it happening.

Albert, who headed up the Falcons from 1988-97, is more optimistic.

From his office at Minerva High School in Ohio, where he is an assistant principal and offensive coordinator, Albert strongly believes Leto can be successful.

But he said success has to be measured in 4-6, 5-5 and 6-4 seasons, with an outside shot at a playoff spot.

"You are not winning the state championship there,'' he said.

Albert is realistic, but hopeful. Be strong. Be fundamental. Make it fun.

Mostly, don't try to be something you're not, he says.

"It's not open heart surgery,'' said Albert, who was 49-53. "But you can go 5-5, you can give the kids good competitive experiences, and maybe you'll find a Michael Jenkins (former Leto star now in the NFL) that can help you get to the playoffs.''

• • •

Finding success will take an exceptional class to enroll, players somehow navigating the road between eighth and ninth grades without being steered elsewhere.

It will take acceptance that, in a new district that includes annual playoff heavyweights Armwood, Hillsborough and Jefferson, the Falcons will likely suffer in the short term.

Heck, maybe it will take going independent, getting out of its wickedly tough district and scheduling foes it can compete against. Either way, there will be no playoffs the next two seasons.

It will take a master marketer. Long before a new playbook is revealed for the field, the program will need one for off the field. The sales job will be immense.

It will take trust.

It will take five years, at least. "It's an awful long road,'' Heldt said.

It will take a village of assistant coaches. This is not a three-man job. And they will have to be on campus.

It will take a plan, the same offense each week, the same defense each week.

It will take a miracle or two.

And a coach who believes in them.

John C. Cotey can be reached at cotey@sptimes.com

Photo: Alex Albert managed to lead Leto to five winning seasons from 1988-1997.

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