Coaching key in Brandon High's decades of success

They expected, and got, the best out of Eagles Nest athletes.
Published November 6 2013
Updated November 8 2013

Second in an occasional series.


At 64, Paul Orndorff clutches some unforgettable, life-altering experiences.

Before rising to prominence as a professional wrestler known as "Mr. Wonderful," Orndorff's reputation as a punishing University of Tampa fullback made him a draft pick of the New Orleans Saints.

But homesick for his wife, the former Ronda Maxwell, he turned his attention to family and wrestling. They raised a pair of sons and now, have eight grandchildren.

Through it all, Orndorff will tell you the time he spent playing football for Brandon High under coach Charlie Livingston in the 1960s holds a special place in his memories.

"He was the best coach I ever had in my life and I mean that with all my heart," Orndorff said from his home in Georgia. "He was like a father to me because I didn't really have one."

In the history annals at Brandon High, you can find a plethora of great athletes such as Orndorff, the school's first state champion in the 1969 discus. And behind each of those athletes is a coach who drove, prodded, pushed and steered them to greater success.

From those halcyon days of Livingston and the '69 football team to the current string of 13 consecutive state championships being posted by Russ Cozart's wrestling dynasty, coaching has been one of the key constants inside the Eagles Nest.

• • •

Orndorff grew up the product of divorced parents in a tough Clair-Mel City neighborhood, hanging out with kids nearly twice his age.

But he remembers Livingston and his wife, Vonda, doing "little things" along the way including inviting him to their home and helping him during his formidable high school years.

"He and Charlie were buddies," Vonda said of Orndorff, a 185-pound high school student who worked his physique to a peak of 262 pounds and 21-inch biceps as a pro wrestler.

Charlie led the 1969 Eagles football team to its only state title game the year after Orndorff graduated, falling to Tallahassee Leon 24-14 in the Class 2A finals.

Charlie, who died in 2000 of cancer, helped 17 of his players earn full scholarships to colleges, including Tony Cristiani, a two-time All-American at Miami.

"The boys were like a family," said Vonda, who taught at Seffner Elementary School for 32 years. "He cared about them and they cared about him."

• • •

Jeff Turner continues to rank as one of Brandon's best known athletes. After graduating in 1980, the 6-foot-9 forward went on to stardom at Vanderbilt and then won a 1984 Olympic gold medal playing alongside Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing.

Turner also enjoyed a 10-year NBA career, including seven with the Orlando Magic.

As a head coach, Turner guided the Orlando Lake Highland Prep boys basketball team, to the Class 4A state title earlier this year. Who did he turn to when he first accepted the Lake Highland position? His old Brandon coach Jan Bennett.

"I called … and talked offense and defense," said Turner, who stepped down from his coaching position after the season ended to serve as the television analyst on Magic broadcasts but remains Lake Highland's athletic director. "I put in coach Bennett's 1-3-1 defense. Jan Bennett did so much for me. I knew going to Vanderbilt I was well prepared. Coach Bennett did a great job of getting my name out there.

"Anybody who has played for Jan Bennett will say they can play for anybody. He was demanding and set expectations high."

Bennett, one of the county's coaching deans, started his Brandon tenure in 1976. He believes that good coaches are helped by good parents and success comes when the two merge together in sports.

"You've got to have good kids," Bennett said. "I have a theory that the difference between winners and losers in life are their expectations of reality."

At least nine of his former players have gone on to the coaching ranks themselves, though Bennett says, "I can't remember any one of them ever saying they wanted to be a coach."

• • •

The winningest coach in Hillsborough County public school history, also came from Brandon — Frank Vining.

He arrived in 1978 after stops at East Bay and Hillsborough thinking he could coach boys basketball, but Bennett returned as coach and Brandon instead offered him the volleyball job.

Like Jim Graves, the coach who set the foundation for Brandon's wrestling dynasty, he took to self-teaching through books.

"A few of us played for a couple years in junior high and I remember the first meeting in the preseason," said Lauri Dagostino, who played on Vining's first team. "We walked in and sat down and looked at the front table and saw these books like, How to Coach Volleyball and Volleyball 101 and thought, 'Oh my God this is going to be terrible.'

"After the meeting, I walked up and said, 'Hey coach, what would you think about having an assistant coach? I have a friend who is interested.' To Frank's credit, he said, 'sure.' "

Vining went on to win the only two girls state team titles in Brandon's history in 1984 and 1986, amassing a 424-93 record using an old-school 4-2 offense featuring a pair of setters in lieu of the 5-1 scheme seen predominantly in today's game.

"I knew nothing about volleyball," said Vining, famous for twisting and tugging his mustache. "It was one of the greatest places to work because of the principals and kids. My old coach taught me KISS — keep it simple, stupid."

Dagostino, who rose to become one of the state's biggest names in club volleyball circles as a tournament organizer, said what Vining may have lacked as a technician, he made up for as a motivator.

"He was the most amazing person at getting the most out of his players. He communicated so well and was so genuine. You wanted to play your hardest for him."

• • •

The only other time the Eagles reached the state title game in basketball was in 2000. Mark Hermann coached a squad that featured five senior starters including twin brothers Joey and Stephen Graham.

The Toronto Raptors selected Joey 16th overall in the 2005 NBA draft and played for six seasons. While Stephen went undrafted, he played for eight NBA teams, and spent this preseason with the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Grahams, who became the fourth set of twins to play in the NBA, helped the Eagles to a 31-4 season and a No. 28 national ranking before falling to Gainesville in the title game.

Stephen recalls what it was like excelling in basketball at a "wrestling" school.

"You walk in the gym and you see all the (wrestling) banners," said Stephen. "Coach Cozart was a big guy and he trained us. Coach Hermann got with Cozart and wanted us to do some of the same things as the wrestling team. One thing was to run 2 miles with somebody on your back and I got paired with my brother since we were about the same size."

• • •

Greg Parris, who coached the baseball team from 1992-2001, also borrowed from Cozart in order to get the most out of his players. Parris, now the physical education department head at Brandon, implemented some of the wrestlers' conditioning program.

"I still see other coaches go to him all the time," said Parris, whose 1995 team finished as state runners up. "I learned so much from Coach Cozart from being around him. I used to tell my players if you work half as hard as the wrestling team, you would be more successful."

Parris sent 40 players to college on scholarships and 16 were drafted professionally. Perhaps the most notable was Chone Figgins, who became the sixth Eagles player to reach the major leagues after finishing his senior year in 1997 as a third-team all-American. Figgins won a World Series title with the Anaheim Angels in 2002, led the league in stolen bases in 2005 and earned an all-star nod in 2009.

• • •

For decades, Brandon High coaches have instilled a sense of pride in wearing the maroon and white. Some coaches did it for the love of the game, others for the appreciation of their players.

Orndorff thinks Livingston coached for both reasons.

"He played an important part in my life and he didn't even know it," said Orndorff, who's battling cancer like his former coach, his voice tinged by recent chemotherapy treatments.

"Or maybe he did."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Eric Vician can be reached at [email protected]