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Cotey: Pasco County AD Bell's firm grip deserves a hand

Phil Bell isn't the kind of guy who beats his chest.

So let me do it for him:

Not here.

Not now.

Not ever.

Of course, that sounds nothing like Bell, the soft-spoken, big-stick carrying Pasco County athletic director.

He is calm, cool and nice enough that if you stay on the phone with him longer than five minutes, you're tempted to ask him out to the nearest eatery for wings and a ball game.

But he is deadly serious about his job.

Bell and Zephyrhills principal Steve Van Gorden's decision Tuesday to fire Zephyrhills football coach Jerrell Cogmon wasn't done specifically to send a message, but it does.

While Hillsborough County has been awash in Transferpalooza this past offseason — more than 50 kids, many notable, have switched allegiances — Bell said he plans to keep a firmer grip on his county.

Cogmon is gone for a few reasons. But most significant: A volunteer assistant coach who left Wesley Chapel for Zephyr­hills had inappropriate contact with one of his former Wildcats via phone, text messages and MySpace pages.

One of those former players decided to transfer to Zephyr­hills. And apparently, Cogmon knew all this was going on.

The rule on that is pretty simple: You can't follow one of your coaches to another school, for whatever reason, without losing athletic eligibility for one year.

"It's the toughest decision I've ever had to make,'' said Van Gorden.

But in some ways, the easiest.

Wesley Chapel waved the red flag, and for months the Wildcats have been waving a white one.

Their best running back, Hunter Joyer, transferred to Tampa Catholic. Their best wide receiver, Mitch Wozniak, and quarterback, C.J. West, transferred to Pasco.

When they heard Abel Robinson had been in contact with one of their players, well, enough was apparently enough.

In an era when coaches like to complain loudly about others recruiting their players but prefer to lob accusations from behind a wall of anonymity, the Wildcats called Bell.

When coaches formally complain, he will investigate. And when he finds wrongdoing, he will deliver stern punishment.

Good for him.

There are quite a few counties bogged down by inaction — some reachable by bridge, for example — that wouldn't mind an athletic director like Bell.

And you can bet there are more than a few athletic directors and football coaches around the area cheering Bell's decision.

Trust me, there are a lot more inappropriate text messages from a lot of other assistant coaches sitting on the cell phones of a lot of other players that shouldn't be there.

It was similar behavior from assistant coaches that the Florida High School Athletic Association cited in harshly punishing St. Petersburg Catholic in 2006. A three-year postseason ban and a $13,000 fine weren't even enough to get coach Dan Mancuso fired, an oversight by SPC that kept the cloud over the Barons program for months until he resigned.

Bell and Van Gorden are taking a proactive approach, for a fresh start, because this goes deeper than just a few text messages.

While Van Gorden thinks Cogmon was a fine hire who brought enthusiasm to the program, stressed academics and was loved by his players, he had expressed concern multiple times in meetings with the coach that the program had waded into murky waters during the summer. Before a single text message was sent.

Van Gorden wouldn't elaborate, but the coach was already on super double secret probation and hadn't even had his coaching supplement approved by the school board yet.

If it could happen now, with obstacles yet to clear, what about later?

"When I got here (in May), I had 100 percent faith in Jerrell Cogmon and the direction he was taking the program,'' Van Gorden said. "However, looking at everything going on from the summers and now having to self-report this, I did not feel … well, it was a tough decision."

The timing, that is unfortunate. There are kids and parents who are angry, who have told Bell and Van Gorden that had they been able to make a decision 48 hours earlier, their sons would have transferred to another school with a more stable coaching situation.

Cogmon, 35, is still a young coach, and these seem to be young coach mistakes. It is unfortunate, because I was looking forward to his first season.

He came into this sleepy town to replace the sleepy former coach of 20 years, and he brought fire and energy. Heck, his plans to run the triple option — in effect jettisoning three-sport star and lumbering returning quarterback Tyler Guy to Freedom — shook up the Bulldog faithful.

Cogmon was going to shake things up in Zephyrhills, for better or for worse.

Tuesday, it was revealed much sooner than we ever expected.

John C. Cotey can be reached at jcotey@tampabay.com

Cotey: Pasco County AD Bell's firm grip deserves a hand 08/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 12, 2009 7:38am]

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