ZEPHYRHILLS — Reggie Roberts took a nice, big swipe at Pasco during his introductory press conference.
Zephyrhills’ new football coach was asked about the rivalry between the Bulldogs and Pirates, also known as the 9-mile war.
“Is there a rivalry?” asked Roberts, a Zephyrhills alum. “We’re dominant from what I understand. That’s the way I know it. …I don’t believe I was ever beat by Pasco when I was here.
“…My intent is we’re going to win a whole heap of football games, but most definitely that one.”
That’s one way to deflect attention back to football.
Roberts’ introduction Friday as the fourth head football coach since Tom Fisher resigned last year lifted a heap of anxiety off of this small east Pasco community.
More than 100 people applied to replace Jerrell Cogmon, who was fired two days into fall practice after a recruiting investigation. Bulldogs assistants Greg Mathis and Troy Hochstetler replaced Cogmon as co-interim coaches, guiding Zephyrhills to a 2-8 finish in 2009.
Of the five finalists, three were Zephyrhills alumni, including Hochstetler. The other finalists were Rashad West, Nick Carroll and Tony Lister.
“Having to remove Jerrell was probably the toughest decision I’ve ever made in administration,” Zephyrhills principal Steve Van Gorden said. “…I couldn’t turn my cheek and let that stuff go on. …Ultimately, I’m the one that’s going to be held accountable.”
As Roberts was paraded through the high school’s hallways Friday, students and teachers seemed to have faith that the football program was headed on a better path.
Roberts, 37, graduated from Zephyrhills in 1990 before attending Bethune-Cookman where he was a linebacker. After college, he went into law enforcement, where he had many roles, including homicide investigator and hostage negotiator in Orlando. Roberts will remain in law enforcement until a teaching job at Zephyrhills opens.
Roberts, who has never been a head football coach because his job wouldn’t permit him the time, kept his hand in football and coaching other sports.
“I’ve been around a lot of great football minds,” said Roberts, who will be able to choose his staff at Zephyrhills. “I plan to have folks on the sideline that have played a little bit, coaches who know a little football themselves.”
Roberts is the son of Pasco assistant and Zephyrhills alum Ricky Giles, who has been a staple of the Pirates’ athletic program. Notably Giles is one of the North Suncoast’s most successful baseball coaches. Giles coached against his son in the 9-mile war in the late 1980s and won’t hold back in the fall.
“Sometimes it gets real competitive,” Giles said with a laugh. “I want to whup him. I told him if we did get down there it would be like we’re playing because we’re going to whoop him.”
Giles said it was “breath taking” to hear his son had landed the job. He has faith Roberts can turn Zephyrhills around.
“It’s not all about the win and the loss stuff,” Giles said. “What’s going to matter is if you’re doing the right thing. If you’re doing the right thing that program will go.”
One challenge Roberts will face is proving he is the right choice. How will his success be judged?
“You look at how he interacts with kids,” Van Gorden said. “Can he motivate them, get them in the weight room? Success will be determined by getting kids to college, getting some wins and filling up the stands again. …Today was a very big first step.”
Roberts said all the right things Friday as he worked his way around the school. He stressed academics, community service and winning as vital to maintaining the program.
Roberts was thrust in front of a video camera where he addressed the entire school on closed-circuit television. He then zipped through a crowded hallway, even taking time to hold a door open for a couple of girls, before he walked into the gymnasium and past a picture of his 1990 team. He wore a black jersey, No. 80.
A crowd of Zephyrhills students and teachers greeted him inside and listened to him speak.
Fisher stood in the distance. When Roberts finally finished shaking hands and giving thanks, he gave his old coach a bear hug.
Said Fisher: “Congratulations. Welcome home.”
Meet Reggie Roberts
High school: Zephyrhills (1990)
College: Bethune-Cookman (1995), bachelor’s degree in criminal justice; Troy (master’s degree (1998) in counseling and psychology.
Family: Wife Deborah; children Reggie Jr. (12), Ekeidrah (8), Emani (1)
Football career: Linebacker for Zephyrhills and Bethune-Cookman
High school coaching: Volunteer assistant New Smyrna Beach (1995); volunteer assistant at Orlando Evans (2001-03).