DADE CITY — One of the most successful boys basketball coaching careers in North Suncoast history has come to an abrupt end.
Former Springstead High icon Greg O'Connell, who came out of retirement in 2007 to take over the program at Bishop McLaughlin, confirmed Tuesday morning he walked away from the job on Jan. 2 — hours before a game at Lakeland Christian — after a meeting with disgruntled parents.
Two days before, four players were sent home after arriving late to a 9 a.m. practice, perpetuating a trend of tardiness O'Connell said he had spent all season trying to snuff out. Two of the six who arrived on time eventually walked out.
"I'm ashamed to tell you I'm a Catholic," said O'Connell, who won 366 games in 23 seasons at Springstead and had the Hurricanes off to a 10-1 start.
"This is supposed to be a Catholic school. The only reason I went there was because of that. … The main reason people go to a Catholic school is because of the education, religion and hopefully the discipline. I'm just doing what I think is right. I'm a disciplinarian."
Les Parker, a former Hurricanes golf coach, will take over the program the remainder of the season, first-year athletic director Eddie Kenny said.
"What we're really concerned about is we've lost one of the best coaches this area has ever had," Kenny said. "You can see the impact he had on the program in such a short period of time, even before I got here."
O'Connell said he suspended three starters for being one minute late to a shootaround before the Hurricanes' contest against Tampa Prep in the final of the Dec. 29 Keswick Suncoast Classic. The 'Canes lost 61-28, their first defeat of the season.
"It wasn't their first infraction," O'Connell said. "That's the bottom line, too. I give them all one (infraction). It wasn't a question of this is their first time."
Two mornings later, four players arrived late despite what O'Connell said were explicit instructions to be on the court 10 minutes before 9. Two days after that, O'Connell said, he was preparing a mini-bus for the trip to Lakeland Christian when Kenny called to inform him of a 3 p.m. parents meeting.
Kenny said he was on campus at the time of the meeting.
O'Connell said he was hurt and "blindsided" by the hastily scheduled meeting, which featured parents of all but two of his players. "That just crippled me," he said.
Among the complaints, O'Connell said, were that his tardiness policies were too severe, and his no-nonsense approach was "taking the joy" out of the game. O'Connell, 17-12 during his brief tenure with the 'Canes, said his team rules and policies were "written out" to parents before the season began.
"I just walked out (of the meeting)," O'Connell said. "I went to my cage, got my stuff, handed the keys to the bus to the AD and walked out."
O'Connell, who at 60 is retired from teaching, said he won't coach again and will "never, ever step foot on that campus again."
Kenny acknowledged Tuesday he hasn't spoken to O'Connell since the incident but intends to.
"I didn't want to do that in the immediate aftermath," he said. "I don't want him to have the negative taste that I feel he has right now."
Joey Knight can be reached at email@example.com.