TAMPA — Take away some of the finer details and the Plant High School football team could be confused for a college program — right down to the Nike swooshes on team jerseys, national television exposure and top-notch facility.
This week the Panthers, one of the state’s elite football programs, will take the next step. Plant will travel to Texas, free of charge, to play Abilene High live on ESPN. When they return, their new, privately-funded $650,000 synthetic turf field will greet them, as will the promise of more facility improvements most other public schools would consider purely a pipe dream.
When a program has won three state titles in four years — and sits in one of the most affluent areas of the bay area — everyone wants to share in that success, doing so with open checkbooks. Plant has created a winner, its trophy case as robust as its coffers.
Because of it, especially amid centralized funding that aims to give all public schools equal parts of the prosperous pie, Plant has become the envy of bay area high school sports programs.
“The circus can spin around us, but for us it’s still just football,” Plant coach Robert Weiner said. “We’ve been fortunate that we’re in a great community that supports us. I know how people look at things from the outside, and you hear all those things, but to be honest, despite all the bigness around us, it’s still home-town guys trying to work hard and trying to make part of their dream come true.”
Thursday’s game in Texas arguably will be the biggest in Plant’s history. And it’s the latest example of how high school football has become a big-money business, coming closer to its college counterpart with a growing emphasis on national exposure, facilities and even fame.
Plant won’t drop a dime on this trip. The team’s airfare, hotel room, meals and transportation are paid for by Paragon Marketing Group, a Chicago-area sports marketing firm. The cost of the trip is believed to be around $50,000.
“I know it’s not chump change, but that being said, ESPN doesn’t do it for charity and love for the game,” Weiner said. “You’ve got to believe there are people that are going to be watching it and that there’s a market for it.”
And that’s exactly why Paragon, which has organized 148 high school football and basketball games — representing 183 schools in 31 states — for ESPN since 2002, dreamed of this matchup.
Plant and Abilene were 2009 Class 5A state champions. But more importantly, both have players fans want to see. Tim Tebow (University of Florida), Jimmy Clausen (Notre Dame) and Julio Jones (Alabama) all appeared on ESPN as prep stars in recent years.
Plant has a five-star recruit, running back/defensive end James Wilder Jr. (Florida State commit), as well as quarterback Phillip Ely (Alabama) and offensive tackle Tony Posada (Michigan). The Eagles counter with running back Herschel Sims (Oklahoma State) and undeclared three-star quarterback Ronnell Sims.
County applauds exposure
County high school teams — and not just football — that are “nationally recognized” are allowed to play out-of-state contests, Hillsborough County athletic director Lanness Robinson said. And several have, including Plant’s four-time defending state champ volleyball team, Brandon’s consensus nationally-ranked wrestling team and North Carolina recruit John Henson’s Sickles boys basketball team.
Hillsborough County public schools operate under centralized funding, and there are rules — even down to uniforms —- that limit individual schools from having too much of the pot.
Two years ago Nike approached Armwood to become one of five elite state programs to sign a uniform contract. The company gave the school $10,000 to purchase home and road football uniforms. The jerseys were high end, but the district required Nike to follow rules aimed at keeping county players dressed similar. So numbers couldn’t be stitched on the Armwood jerseys.
“I think we’ve taken a giant step forward in terms of centralized funding because of what’s happened with high school football,” Hillsborough High coach Earl Garcia said. “I think the school district is more supportive. They see that there’s nothing wrong with being big time. And the reason Plant is big time is because of the success they’ve had on the field.”
Matter of money
Plant built itself into one of the bay area’s elite programs from the bottom up. Weiner inherited a team that won just one game seven seasons ago. Last week, the Panthers played their first game on a synthetic turf field at Dads Stadium. They are the county’s first public school to install an artificial surface; Jesuit is the only other school in the area with a similar field.
Plant is one of three land-locked public schools in Hillsborough County — Hillsborough and Chamberlain are the others — so there is no room to build a practice field.
The football field is constantly in use by other teams, so the wear and tear is substantial. By the time the football regular season ends in November, Dads Stadium is essentially a dirt field. So the turf field was an easy sale to the school district, in part because it will also be used by the band, boys and girls soccer, flag football and lacrosse teams.
But it’s just one part of a five-year, $1.1 million plan by the school’s Athletic Foundation, an all-sports booster club to enhance all parts of the school, from practice fields to parking.
“It was something we saw as something for our entire school and something for our entire community,” Weiner said. “It’s really not a football thing. We had everybody in our school involved.”
Plant raised about 60 percent of the cost of the turf field by soliciting around 50 to 100 local families and businesses in the area, said Bruce Ely, one of the project’s managers. Contributors included prominent Plant parent/Super Bowl winning coach Tony Dungy and former Bucs player/attorney Brad Culpepper, Ely said.
Hillsborough High also hopes to install a synthetic turf field in coming years, but the obstacle is money. Still, under Garcia’s tenure, Hillsborough converted a termite-infested middle school PE room with wooden lockers into a field house with a weight room and conference room, which he said took about $500,000 worth of fundraising.
“You need some heavy hitters,” Garcia said. “You need people who are willing to come in and knock on a lot of doors and it has to be important to a lot of people. …You’ve just got to stop making excuses to knock on doors.”
Hard times for some
The ability, or lack thereof, to fundraise further separates the haves and have-nots of high school football. For some schools, the goals are much different.
At Leto, for example, first-year coach Mike Jalazo hopes to just raise enough money for a system to make highlight videos to help get his players recruited.
Jalazo, who coached eight seasons at Clearwater Central Catholic, said when he arrived at Leto, the booster club owed $400.
Fundraising is a challenge. Nearly 80 percent of the school’s student body was eligible for free or reduced lunch last school year.
On the field, Leto hasn’t had a winning season since 1999.
Jalazo, who works at the non-profit Pinellas County Ex-Offender Coalition, believes his experience in fundraising and grant writing helped him get the Leto coaching job.
“It’s what I deal with for a living,” Jalazo said. “Football is such a year-round sport now, so it’s a constant effort to secure what you need for camps, 7-on-7s and everything else you need.
“I would say you need at least $10,000 to $15,000 of liquid capital at all times to really have a chance of running a successful program.”