Land O’Lakes boys track coach and former Jesuit head football coach Bill Schmitz died Monday in an apparent suicide. He was 59.
Mr. Schmitz drove his car to the center of the Sunshine Skyway bridge early Monday morning, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. Just before 5 a.m., he leapt from the side of the railing. Authorities found his body four hours later.
Mr. Schmitz came to Tampa Bay a decade ago after a winding coaching career. He made at least 13 different stops, from Columbia and Vanderbilt to Austin Peay and Europe’s London Monarchs.
Jesuit hired him in 2003 to replace veritable icon Dominick Ciao, passing over — among others — highly popular assistant and Tigers alumnus Robert Weiner.
Mr. Schmitz finished 14-7 in two seasons and took his team to the 2004 Class 3A region final, but struggled to endear himself to the Jesuit community. He resigned in 2005, less than a week before the start of spring practice, and he arrived at Land O’Lakes in 2011.
Plant defensive coordinator John Few coached under Mr. Schmitz at Jesuit and considers him a mentor with a great football mind.
Few also remembers Mr. Schmitz’s fire, which lit the Tigers against Tampa Bay Tech after a winless start to the 2003 season.
“He gives this impassioned speech to the team in the locker room,” Few said. “He says, ‘I don’t care how we do it. You can win 2-0 or 53-52, this is a must-win game.’”
Sure enough, Jesuit won 2-0.
As a social studies teacher, Mr. Schmitz found ways to mix football analogies into his lessons.
“He was just an all-around great person in general, not just a football coach,” said John Kranendonk, who played football and competed in track under Mr. Schmitz for two seasons before heading to Jacksonville University. “He changed the whole way I look at life.”
Though he was not on the Gators’ football staff this season, Mr. Schmitz remained a teacher and track coach. He was the Tampa Bay Times’ North Suncoast track coach of the year in 2012 and led Land O’Lakes to the Class 3A, District 6 championships each of the past two seasons.
“The passion he had on the field couldn’t compare to the passion he had while working with kids in the Special Olympics,” said Darin Patmon, who credits Schmitz for helping him sign with Columbia in 2012. “He has left a lasting impression on my life.”
Land O’Lakes informed students of Mr. Schmitz’s death Monday afternoon and provided counselors for students and teachers.
A phone message left at his family’s home was not returned.
Land O’Lakes players expressed their grief on Twitter:
Junior Kamal Wells: “I want to say RIP to one of my past coaches Bill Schmitz he taught me everything I know about the game of football and being a better person.”
Senior Conor Heaney: “Feeling completely down right now not wanting to go to football today #rip Bill Schmitz…you’ll have my prayers tonight.”
Senior Shaheed Salmon: ““RIP Schmitz. Hands down one of the best guys ive ever met. These tears suck man. #InShock ... Im playing this season for you #RIP.”
Senior Darius Wells: “I know Coach Schmitz is in heaven drinking a Coke and talking to God about how to run the football down (someone’s) throat.”
Mr. Schmitz is survived by his wife, Lynn, and two children, Allison and Matt, who’s a head high school football coach in Kentucky.
This is the second death related to the Gators football program in the last five months; longtime coach John Benedetto died in April at age 66. The team wore JB stickers on their helmets in Friday’s preseason game against Zephyrhills.
Times staff writer Joey Knight contributed to this report.