TAMPA -- Jason Stokes came to Middleton two years ago to be head football coach because he wanted to be a part of changing around one of Tampa's struggling inner-city high schools.
But the school's administration told the Times Friday that Stokes won't be returning to coach the Tigers next season.
Both principal Owen Young and athletic director Derrick Gaines say the move has little to do about X's and O's -- Stokes inherited a 2-8 team in the spring of 2009 and has led them to two straight 5-5 seasons playing in one of the area's most competitive districts -- but instead philosophical differences.
"We're looking more at long-term success and not so much short-term success as it aligns with our vision and where we see ourselves moving forward in the future," said Gaines, who hired Stokes from Bloomingdale, where he led the Bulls to their first playoff berth in the school's 25-year history in his first and only season there.
Both say the move has more to do with what occurs in the halls of Middleton than on the Tigers' practice field. Just a few years ago, Middleton was a D school, faced with the threat of a mandatory overhaul. The Department of Education placed the East Tampa school on a list of the most troubled schools.
Young became the school's new principal in 2009, just months after former principal Carl Green hired Stokes.
"We've made some great transitions here at Middleton the last few years," said Young, a Hillsborough graduate who played football under former longtime Terriers coach Pat O'Brien. "Everything at this school has to be evaluated. It's not necessarily about wins and losses. I'm a proponent of people who are committed, and Jason is committed to growing a program. We're at a point where every pillar in this institution has to align.
"It's about fit," he said. "Because we don't have time here."
Young refers to his coaches as ambassadors, with each one having to be on the same page in what needs to happen to rebuild Middleton into the school it must become. And no party would say that the Tigers football program isn't better because of Stokes.
For Stokes, however, it was still a surprise.
"They had their reasons," Stokes said. "It wasn't about football. The administration was pleased with the program. They wanted to go in a different direction. I still think I had a great effect on the kids here, but what can you do? I'm just looking to move on."
But in looking for a new coach, Young and Gaines said it will be important for Stokes' successor to be close to the East Tampa community. Middleton was a large part of the East Tampa's black community, located just south of its current site on 22nd Street, until it was shut down in 1971 under federal segregation order. It reopened as a magnet school eight years ago.
The search for a new coach starts next week, Gaines said.
"Someone has to be astute," Young said of a new coach, "astute to the desires and needs of a community. It's about growing a child and growing a community."
Stokes inherited a tough situation at Middleton. In the offseason before he arrived, some of the team's top players left for neighboring schools. They lost their top linebacker to TBT, their starting running back to Hillsborough. Their starting quarterback, a freshman, went to Chamberlain and then on to King.
This past season, the Tigers opened the season 0-3, but won 5 of their last 7 games to finish .500.
Stokes will remain on staff at Middleton, where he is a PE/Driver's Education teacher, for the remainder of the school year.
"I'm still passionate about football, and hopefully someone out there will give me another chance," Stokes said.
-- EDUARDO A. ENCINA (firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @EddieHometeam)