TAMPA -- After coaching high school football in Hillsborough County for 33 years, Jefferson head coach Mike Fenton is going out on top.
Fenton, who guided the Dragons to the Class 3A state title this fall, announced Saturday evening at the Dragons’ team banquet that he is retiring from coaching.
Jefferson won its first state football title in December, beating Miami Norland 44-34 at the Citrus Bowl, capping a 15-0 season. The Dragons also scored a single-season state record 746 points.
Fenton said he told Jefferson principal Dan Bonilla this would be his final year coaching before the Dragons' state title season began. As part of the DROP program, his faculty job at Jefferson changed this year, and essentially he was coaching this season on a volunteer basis without a supplement.
"I knew I was going to do it," Fenton said about stepping down. "But as the season went on, it was like a dream year. I think every coach considering retirement would like to go out with a season like this, and I owe it all to the kids and everybody else. I couldn't ask for anything more memories that I could ever imagine.
"Words can't describe the feeling," he added. "The biggest thing was going 15-0. That was monumental. I'll have that with me for the rest of my life. It's hard to top that."
Fenton, 55, was a football coach at Jefferson for 12 seasons. He was the Dragons’ head coach for five seasons, and was Jefferson’s offensive coordinator under Mike Simmonds on two teams that advanced to the state title game.
Jefferson has two months to hire a new coach before the beginning of spring practice, but offensive coordinator Jeremy Earle, a former Hillsborough standout quarterback who played at USF, is the likely successor.
Dragons senior quarterback Quentin Williams said he had a feeling Fenton might step down at the end of the season.
"What better way to retire than on top?" Williams said.
Saturday afternoon, the Dragons were honored before a New York Yankees spring training game, and Fenton's final act as the Dragons' head coach was giving his team their state championship rings at the end of Saturday night's team banquet. Players opened the boxes that held their rings all at once, shocked at the size and weight of the rings.
"The looks on their faces when they put them on their hands, I was up there watching them, and it was worth a million dollars," Fenton said. "It's something they're going to have for the rest of their lives."
Fenton spent much of his career -- 21 years -- as an assistant. He started coaching at age 22 as a JV assistant at Robinson, where he learned from legendary Knights coach Randy Smith. He also coached at Plant before taking his first offensive coordinator job at East Bay. He was then Sean Callahan’s OC at Armwood and eventually moving on to run the offense at Tampa Catholic, his alma mater, before arriving at Jefferson in 1999.
“When I first started doing this,” Fenton told the Times in December. “I was young and told myself I would do this for a few years until I figured out what I wanted to do when I grow up. So here I am at 55 still at it. It’s like the mafia; you can get in but you can’t get out.”
Under Fenton, the Dragons weathered some turbulent times to become one of the state’s best teams. Talented Jefferson linebacker C.J. Mills was shot to death in April 2007, when this year’s seniors were freshmen, and a mass transfer exodus of several starters to Chamberlain occurred the following year. Fenton also dealt with the death of his mother, Celia, last New Year’s Day.
-- EDUARDO A. ENCINA (firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @EddieHometeam)