Times Staff Writer
TAMPA — Football coach and school principal Dick Spoto knew a lot of people. Decades later, he seemed to remember them all, using an almost machine-like recall to ask relevant questions about their lives.
The son of Sicilian immigrants, Mr. Spoto survived his 12 older siblings and his wife, but always rebounded through a network of other family members, former players — and, recently, current high school students.
Mr. Spoto, Hillsborough County's first athletic director and the namesake of Richard C. Spoto High School, died Jan. 31, in his condominium. He was 92.
"Dick Spoto was an individual who reminds me a lot of Urban Meyer," said Peter Parrado, a former Pinellas County director of Juvenile Services who also played football at Jefferson High School under Mr. Spoto. "He wanted to make every young man in his program a better person."
People liked Mr. Spoto, a talented running back who stood 5 feet 8 ½ (he always included the half-inch) whose peers at Hillsborough High School, Class of 1935, voted him the "cutest," "best-looking," "most popular" and having the "best personality."
He went to the University of Tampa on a football scholarship and met Betty Hodgson, who was the quieter of the two. With one commitment locked down for life, he set about establishing the other one. After a stint in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he coached as an assistant at Hillsborough High, then was head coach at Jefferson until 1949.
Parrado was on that team at Jefferson. So was running back Rick Casares, who went on to set a rushing record with the Chicago Bears. Under Mr. Spoto's patient leadership, Jefferson beat nemeses Hillsborough and Plant.
"Every experience I've ever had with that man has been a positive experience, and made me feel good about myself and about him," said Parrado, 77.
Stories about Mr. Spoto's thoughtfulness and energy abound, both from his coaching days to subsequent terms as the first athletic director for Hillsborough County schools; as principal of Tampa Bay Boulevard Elementary School, Sligh Junior High School, and Hillsborough High.
"I would hear stories of students ready to drop out of school and he would go out in his car, pick them up, and bring them back," granddaughter Allison Russell said in a eulogy she delivered for Mr. Spoto.
In the summers, Mr. Spoto took his family to his North Carolina property, where he spent the days clearing the land. He retired in 1970, but promptly returned for another 10 years as headmaster of Saint Mary's Episcopal Day School.
Betty Spoto, his wife of 53 years, died in 1993, of ovarian cancer. "He kind of lost his zip for a few years," said daughter Elizabeth "B.J." Spoto-Russell, a psychologist and Christian minister. "He has missed her all of the 17 years."
As Hillsborough County sought to add two high schools, former football players pushed for one to be named after their old coach. They turned out to a School Board meeting in December 2004, when the board chose Richard C. Spoto's name for the school in Riverview.
"There was a huge group of his former football players, all in their 70s and 80s," said Spoto-Russell, 63. "We all gathered out in the lobby to call him after it was announced. And they were crying and we were crying and Daddy was crying, we were all so thrilled."
Mr. Spoto, then 89, gave a rousing speech at the school's 2006 dedication and became a regular at Spoto's games, plays and concerts.
"He knew all our teachers and what they taught, which is amazing. He would look at them and ask about their classes," said Clyde Trathowen, Spoto's principal. He memorized yearbooks and called students by name when he walked the halls.
"We really think that it gave him a new lease on life and a purpose," Spoto-Russell said. "It really gave him a reason to keep on going and living."
This spring, for the first time, Spoto High will graduate seniors who have attended all four years at the school. "The seniors are disappointed," Trathowen said. "They wanted him there."
The school will find a way to acknowledge Mr. Spoto's legacy at the ceremony, Trathowen said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.