BROOKSVILLE — The football team Mark Lee is inheriting at Nature Coast Technical High School features a talented roster and a tarnished image. Spring practice already is half over, and September is looming. In the next three months, Lee must earn his new players’ trust and install an offense to which the Sharks aren’t accustomed.
Improving the local perception of the program also wouldn’t be a bad idea. Time isn’t on his side. In the long run, no one is sure if the players will be, either. But Lee, hired Monday night to replace Jamie Joyner as Sharks coach, has encountered steeper challenges during a nomadic coaching career.
Such as the one year he spent as an assistant at Waddell High in Charlotte, N.C. “I know coming here is not an easy situation with all the things that have transpired,” said Lee. “But I do believe working in that type of setting has helped me.”
At Waddell, which Lee called a “challenge” school filled with troubled youngsters, he had to learn gang signs. Some students were there only because a court order forced them to be. A 15-year-old once threatened to kill him “in very explicit ways.”
“But the kids there, they came to respect me and do what I asked because they knew I was out there for them,” said Lee, 34, a Pennsylvania native raised in Morgantown, W.Va. “And I think in time these kids here at Nature Coast will come to that same belief.”
Lee embarked on his effort to win the support of his new team Tuesday, when he met with about 60 of his players in the Nature Coast gym.
The previous night, he was informed he had been chosen over fellow Springstead assistant Mike Garofano and Nature Coast defensive coordinator Charles Liggett, who has been running spring drills. Incoming Nature Coast principal Sonya Jackson, who spearheaded a search committee to find a new coach, didn’t return phone messages Tuesday.
“He seems like a nice guy, actually,” Sharks quarterback C.J. Baker said. “I guess it will take awhile to get to know him to make any judgments, but he seems like a nice guy, a good coach, and he’s got a good background.” Shortly after the players’ meeting, Lee met with several Sharks assistants. Two of them — Ed LaRose and Mike Lastra — played for Lee’s father, Steve, at Chowan College in North Carolina.
He steps into his new role at a precarious time in the program’s brief history. Nature Coast won its first nine games last season, but was forced to forfeit its season finale at Central and was barred from the postseason for its role in a bench-clearing brawl in a Nov. 7 game at Groveland South Lake.
Then, on April 13, Joyner resigned after five seasons. At the time, he was serving a suspension with pay while the Hernando County school district looked into allegations that he met off-campus with an 18-year-old female student. “It is very important that we do things the right way and we will be successful,” said Lee, who will teach physical education at Nature Coast.
“I know there’s the perception of Nature Coast’s football team, from a character standpoint, that’s probably not very good just because of the media (attention) they’ve received. We’re going to change the image.”
The run-oriented offense likely will be modified as well. To what extent is unclear.
“My impression was he was going to sit down and talk to the coaches about a lot of that,” Baker said.
The son of a longtime prep and college football coach who ran the spread offense before it became wildly popular, Lee played quarterback at Morgantown High and Division III Waynesburg (Pa.) College before finishing his career at Olivet Nazarene University near Chicago.
He began his coaching career immediately thereafter, building his resume with graduate-assistant jobs at small colleges that typically paid a four-figure pittance.
He got a huge coaching break with a two-year graduate assistant stint (1999-2000) at West Virginia University.
In all, Lee, set to be married in July, has coached at five colleges and three high schools, developing success with passing games.
“He’ll do a good job,” said legendary former West Virginia coach Don Nehlen, who spent 21 seasons as Mountaineers coach and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
“He was one of my GAs and he comes from a football family. His dad was a coach and he’s got a great background. He was very helpful to me and he has a passion for the game. That’s always a big thing.”
Last year at Springstead, Lee helped tutor Eagles quarterback James Mahla, who passed for 1,391 yards and 13 touchdowns. That’s 500 yards more than the passing yardage total amassed by Nature Coast, which by contrast averaged 321 rushing yards a game.
“I’ll put in my system over the summer, just because that’s what I know,” Lee said. “I’m going to lose games with my stuff; I’m going to win games with my stuff. That way there are no excuses whatsoever.
“We’ll do what the defenses give us. If that means running the ball 50 times and throwing it once, then that’s what it is.
“But I’ve got to have at least one pass in there.”
Joey Knight can be reached at [email protected] or at (813) 226-3350.