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John Palmer, Hernando High's new football coach, has big cleats to fill

BROOKSVILLE — The diverse cuisine at Luigi's Pizza might best be described as Southern-Italian, with the breakfasts heavy on the Southern and dinners steeped in Italian.

John Palmer pulls open the front door of this quaint landmark, a culinary bastion of grits and garlic well-known among the locals, and instantly recognizes four buddies shoehorned into a corner booth. He shakes some hands, slaps some backs and introduces his guest to all four before retiring to a table across the room.

At this point, one senses Palmer has been in this town for 30 or so years.

Truth is, he has been back in this town for only 30 or so days.

"Really, this has been my home," said Hernando High's new football coach-athletic director, hired in June over nearly 40 other applicants for the job. "I've always had an interest (in coming back). At times, the timing hasn't been right. It did not present itself at a positive time or something. But I'm fortunate."

With that, Palmer's food arrives. He bows his head in silent prayer, douses his scrambled eggs in ketchup and Tabasco sauce, and spends the next half-hour discussing his priorities, passions and, of course, the Palmer before him.

John Charles Palmer, Hernando High Class of 1983, is the son of Willard "Dub" Palmer, class by himself. In a nomadic prep coaching career that spanned 34 years, John's dad collected 232 wins, five state titles and zero losing seasons. Thirty-six of those wins came in a sparkling four-year tenure (1979-82) with the Leopards.

Now, the son is back home, putting the 2008 Leopards through a summer conditioning program in preparation for preseason drills that begin three weeks from Monday. He has returned to Brooksville, armed with a resume that features one state title of its own, to be geographically closer to his mother while trying to replicate the astounding success forged by his father more than a quarter-century ago. Can he pull it off? Well, that's uncertain.

This isn't: From his appearance to his philosophy to his well-oiled rural charm, John, 43, is definitely his dad's son.

"He has a lot of his (dad's) mannerisms, just little quirky things," said his mom, Jo Etta, who still lives in Brooksville.

Hernando assistant principal Brent Gaustad, a former Leopards football assistant who knew the elder Palmer, says the resemblances — even the philosophical ones — are "eerie."

"No. 1, his discipline, commitment, and just his overall demeanor to do what's best for kids, is just like his daddy's," Gaustad said. "You wonder if your kids listen to you, and I know his father has died, but Dub could be happy his son listened. He's taking over the family mantel and moving forward."

Hope springs paternal

In some ways Dub Palmer, who died in 2004 at age 81 after years of declining health, was a Plant City-born paradox: a math whiz who preferred simplicity, a grounded individual who moved to nine different head coaching jobs.

Because his coaching career began before game film and other technological breakthroughs, he learned to rely heavily on sheer memory and instinct. Neither flash nor flair were his nature. Meticulousness was.

"I have a lot of tablets and pieces of paper around the house still with a lot of X's and O's on it," said Jo Etta, who also had a daughter with Dub (John has two older half-siblings). "I know at his funeral his younger brother (Richard) gave a eulogy. He said when they were growing up, Dub would sit in front of a radio (football broadcast) drawing X's and O's."

John, who played safety and running back for his dad at Hernando, recalls running the same offensive play — out of Dub's archaic-yet-effective straight-T formation — as many as 20 times in a practice until the coach was satisfied. Defensively, you could bank on Dub putting six across the line of scrimmage with two linebackers on the tight ends.

"Everybody knew what was coming at them," said Eddie Looper, a close friend and teammate of John's who has a son named Palmer. "But we played hard together and executed together."

John concurs, saying his dad's strategic simplicity belied his intellect. He notes that Dub briefly attended Georgia Tech, before World War II commenced, and later received degrees in math (from Rollins College) and educational leadership (from Florida).

"First of all, he was the smartest guy I've ever known," said John, who graduated from Louisiana-Lafayette and played safety in college.

"He was able to watch a play, and I don't know if it was his math background or what, but he could watch things when he was on offense and just basically know where the weaknesses were in the defense. And his offenses were so simple.

"His defense was probably what he was most noted for. Again, it was so simple, it just allowed you to work on being a really good football player. That was kind of his trademark, I think."

Or at least one of his trademarks. The others transcend football.

Looper reels them off: honor, integrity, hard work, and a commitment to faith and family.

Many insist those virtues have trickled down to John.

New era, old values

John has been married the past 18 years to the former Amy Hicks, a bank teller in Bronson whom he met while coaching in that tiny north Florida community. He has been equally betrothed to the priorities he sets for himself and his players.

As a waitress tops off his coffee cup, John, whose marriage has produced a 12-year-old daughter, Morgan, lays them out in his soft, native-Floridian drawl.

"Basically, the first thing we tell them is that your faith comes first," he said. "And then from there you move to your family, and then your academics, and football — or whatever sport you're participating in — should be fourth."

Sound familiar? It should. The coaching fraternity is rife with those who publicly embrace such a philosophy, only to shun it privately. But John's former boss at Port St. Joe High, where he spent the past seven years as football coach-athletic director, doesn't contradict Palmer's claim. He corroborates it.

In fact, Port St. Joe principal Duane McFarland says, John regularly went out of his way to avoid scheduling athletic events on Wednesday nights, reserved for midweek church services in many denominations.

"He lives (those priorities), he really does," McFarland said.

He also remains stubbornly loyal to several old-school principles many contemporaries have long since abandoned. To this day, he's not crazy about long hair on players, mostly disagrees with the idea of high school kids specializing year-round in one sport, and disdains unexcused absences.

"His daddy always said John was a tougher football coach than he was as far as discipline," said Jo Etta, who was married to Dub for 43 years. "Of course, times have changed a lot since my husband was coaching and what coaches have to put up with now."

Nonetheless, those principles haven't conflicted with winning. Using an offense he calls the "fling-T," a pass-friendly spin-off of the run-oriented wing-T, John guided Port St. Joe to a 57-27 record in seven seasons, winning the Class 1A state title in 2005. Before that, he had brief stints at Bronson and Eustis high schools, leading both to playoff appearances.

"He's not one of those coaches that came in here and felt like he wrote the book on football," said McFarland, a Port St. Joe assistant principal when John was hired. "John was very humble and up-front that kids come first, very up-front that you learn from each other by asking questions."

Now, he faces some questions of his own. After all, this isn't his daddy's Brooksville. The county's more sprawling, the local football talent scattered. As a result, black-and-blue welts besmirch Hernando's once-imposing purple-and-gold aura.

The Leopards haven't had a winning season since 2002, and have totaled four victories the past two years. Can John simultaneously install his priorities and restore pride?

If he can, it wouldn't be hyperbolic to suggest he'll be the toast of Brooksville, with a capital T.

If not a straight-T.

"You can bet your last cent that the program will be run very, very similar to how it was when coach Palmer took over in 1979," said Leopards baseball coach Tim Sims, who graduated a year ahead of John at Hernando.

"J.P. is not going to be outworked mentally or physically, I'll tell you that."

Joey Knight can be reached at jknight@sptimes.com.

John Palmer, Hernando High's new football coach, has big cleats to fill 07/19/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 24, 2008 2:31pm]
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