ZEPHYRHILLS — In the waning moments of Monday night's Zephyrhills High fall sports banquet, after the ziti had been digested and the cavalcade of athletes recognized, football coach Tom Fisher pulled out a three-paragraph statement and started reading.
Hardly anyone assembled in the Lions Club building realized it was the final misdirection play of his 20-year head coaching career. The second paragraph began: "Therefore, I am retiring as head football coach at Zephyrhills."
"Everybody was kind of wide-eyed," said junior quarterback Tyler Guy, standing on the stage behind Fisher with his teammates. "There were a bunch of parents (in the audience), and it pretty much just went quiet. … No one expected it."
With that, the winningest football coaching tenure in program history (124-81) ended. Fisher, who guided the Bulldogs to 13 winning seasons and their only two playoff victories, suggested Tuesday morning that his team's struggles over the past two years and the job's increasing demands led to his decision.
The Bulldogs have gone 9-11 in the past two seasons, with this year's team — besieged by injuries — going 4-6.
"There's a lot of negative things, no sense in dwelling on that, but there have been a lot of positive things, too," said Fisher, 56.
"It's not all about winning but in a way it is. When you've got kids you think have the capability of winning and can't get it done, I think it's time for a change. … I just think these kids right now need to have somebody else in charge."
A 34-year coaching veteran in Florida and his native Ohio, Fisher was a Bulldogs assistant when he was hired to replace Barry Gardner following the 1988 season. His first team finished 9-2 and earned the program's first playoff berth.
Despite rosters that annually ranked among the area's smallest, Fisher would produce three 10-win teams and send players to Florida (Bryan Thomas), Ohio State (Ryan Pickett), Miami (Booker Pickett) and FSU (Brett Cimorelli). His 20-year tenure is five years longer than the combined tenures of Zephyrhills' six previous coaches.
"I've said this for a long time, I'm not sure he's not the best coach in this county," said former Mitchell coach Scott Schmitz, who also recently announced his retirement.
"He gets more out of his kids than any coach in the county. Every year you read that he's got 24, 25, 26 kids and a lot of them play both ways and play hard, and he gets the most out of his kids. To me, that's good coaching."
Hiring a replacement could be tricky, athletic director Craig Milburn said, because the school has so few teaching positions available but wants its football coach on staff. Fisher, in the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program, will remain as physical education teacher.
The coaching job pays an annual supplement of $4,476.