ST. PETERSBURG — Bob Fine thought he had seen just about everything in his two decades on Admiral Farragut Academy’s campus.
In 1995, the Blue Jackets had a brief flirtation with success, going 6-3. It was the school’s first winning season in 20 years. Fine assumed that was as good as it would get.
Since then, he has watched athletes endure the humiliation of a 21-game losing streak from 1996-98, and he was there when the school decided to drop out of a Florida High School Athletic Association district and opt for an independent schedule.
“When I first came here, I asked about the athletics and the football program,” said Fine, Admiral Farragut’s president/headmaster the past 14 years. “The admissions director told me that we see more floats than the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. I thought he was kidding, but we were everybody’s homecoming game. We were not just losing. There was not a glimmer of hope of winning back then.”
After that statement, Fine laughed long and hard. Now the Blue Jackets (12-1) are preparing for a once-unthinkable trip to Friday’s Class 2A state championship game against Tallahassee North Florida Christian in Orlando.
“We’ve improved in football through the years and become a respectable program,” Fine said. “But who would have thought Admiral Farragut would ever be playing for a state title in football.”
So with the stunning entry into the state finals, the question arises: Who was Admiral Farragut?
A colorful history
David Glasgow Farragut was an officer in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War who became the first to rise to the rank of Admiral. He is remembered most for his order in the Battle of Mobile Bay when he said, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
The school that bears his name was founded in 1933 on the banks of the Toms River in Pine Beach, N.J. The college preparatory, military-style school became so popular that a second campus was purchased in 1945 in St. Petersburg near the shore of Boca Ciega Bay.
The two campuses ran simultaneously until 1994 when the North campus in New Jersey closed.
The South campus’ main building, Farragut Hall, was originally built as a hotel by Walter Fuller in the 1920s and included 300 acres of waterfront property and three golf courses. The Jungle Prada Hotel and Resort was an attraction for celebrity guests. Gangster Al Capone stayed there. Babe Ruth signed his first $100,000 contract with the New York Yankees in the courtyard of Farragut Hall.
The hotel rooms were converted into dorm rooms. Most of the buildings have since been declared historical landmarks and cannot be altered. Artifacts, such as the sword David Glasgow Farragut used in battle, are displayed on a campus where American history comes alive.
Some of the alumni have shaped history, as well. Of the 12 men who have walked on the moon, two are Admiral Farragut graduates: Alan Shepard (New Jersey campus) and Charles Duke (St. Petersburg campus).
The school can brag of astronauts. But football All-Americans? Not so much.
The football program, which debuted in 1945, has spent most of its existence in a fog of futility. There were just four winning seasons in the Blue Jackets’ first 55 years. Twice during that span, Admiral Farragut went through losing streaks of 20 games or more.
Part of the problem is the way the school is structured.
Designated a Naval Honor school by an Act of Congress in 1946, Admiral Farragut attracts cadets from all over the globe. The student population is represented by 24 countries. Few international students have seen football. Fewer have played it.
And because it is a boarding school, the team starts practice two weeks after other schools because students must move into their quarters. Admiral Farragut’s summer weight program also is limited because many players aren’t in town.
That puts the team at a disadvantage from the very beginning of the season. Foreign students have trouble grasping the nuances of the sport. Those who are familiar with football were also forced to understand football in different terms, to pull on pads and play knowing another loss loomed.
There have been plenty of coaches with big names who tried to turn things around. John Rauch, the former Oakland Raiders coach, headed a winless squad in 1977. David Graham, son of Hall of Famer Otto Graham, went 0-17 from 1990-91.
The facilities were just as bad as the teams.
“I think the biggest injuries we had were sand spurs and red ant bites,” Fine said.
Turning things around
In the past decade, the Blue Jackets have showed signs of becoming a doormat that made good. They went 11-0 as an independent in 2000 and made the school’s first playoff appearances from 2001-03.
But the program did not build itself into a consistent contender until Chris Miller was hired as coach in 2005.
A former quarterback at the school, Miller the coach took on the painful memories and bad jokes with an aggressive approach.
“A lot of the coaches would talk and joke about some of the games we had,” Miller said. “I remember we lost 81-0 once to St. Petersburg Catholic. But we would leave those stories with us. We wanted the players to erase the past.”
Three years ago, Miller decided his program would be captured by five words — “Don’t give up the ship” — that would appear on flags and the team’s website. The quote, the motto of the U.S. Naval Academy, was the dying command of James Lawrence aboard the USS Chesapeake during the War of 1812.
Miller also implemented a weight training program and had players compete in 7-on-7 tournaments in the summer. It also helped that more day-time students with local ties were enrolling and international students were retained for more than a year.
“The biggest thing was having a level of continuity,” Fine said. “Our most successful program year in, year out has been cross country.
Our coach, Phil Barnhill, is an alumni of the school and has been here for years. I think we’re starting to get the same with what Chris is doing.”
While Admiral Farragut’s rags-to-riches state appearance has captivated the school and its alumni, senior running back/defensive back Rayshawn Jenkins wonders if the younger players have an appreciation for the school’s football renaissance.
Jenkins still remembers his freshman season when the Blue Jackets went 2-8.
“We struggled starting out and we were able to turn it around and play with the big cats,” Jenkins said. “Now it’s going to be up to the guys who are coming back to keep that going because we’ve established a tradition.”
Bob Putnam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org