The walls of Robinson football coach Mike DePue's office, scattered with press clippings from years past and photos of former players in their college uniforms, tell the success stories. But DePue can't help but wonder where those success stories have gone. Coming off a 1-9 season, he is excited about his talented group of incoming freshmen, but if the trend continues, he will never see them turn into winners — at least not at Robinson, the smallest public high school in Hillsborough County. Three of his key starters are gone, having transferred to other schools. No high school sports topic has drawn more attention this offseason in the bay area. Players are switching schools, and more often than not, the established programs restock while the struggling programs are left to plug holes. "It's gotten to the point where something's got to be done," DePue said. "Everybody isn't playing with the same deck. I'm just dumbfounded. It's a battle for the have-nots."
The inordinate amount of transferring students is one thing, but then there is the underlying theme of recruiting. How prevalent is it? While coaches won't go on the record about specifics, when the St. Petersburg Times did reporting for football season previews, a handful of coaches were hesitant to talk about younger players for fear they would be recruited.
Nearly two years ago, the Florida High School Athletic Association voted for an amendment that would force any student athlete who transferred to sit out a year, but it was struck down by the Legislature after public outcry. Instead, the FHSAA aimed to focus on curbing recruiting and illegal transfers. FHSAA spokeswoman Cristina Alvarez said Monday that there is nothing on the board's agenda about transfers. FHSAA rules state that once a player practices with a team in the fall, he is locked into playing with that team; if he transfers to another school in the same season, he must sit the rest of the year. And every incoming athlete must sign a GA-4 form, which says he hasn't been recruited.
But every county can enact tougher rules. Students who transfer after ninth grade in Miami-Dade and Brevard counties lose a year of eligibility. In March, Polk County enacted a rule to make transferring more difficult, restricted to students wanting to take advanced placement classes and those who enroll in work-force academies.
Hillsborough County athletic director Lanness Robinson said the county is gathering information on what other areas are doing to curtail transfers.
"It's detrimental to high school sports," Robinson said. "In the way that free agency has been to professional sports, high school sports have moved in the same direction. It deteriorates the concept of team."
Coaches say incidents involving recruiting are prevalent. Tampa Bay Tech coach C.C. Culpepper said he has confronted coaches he believes have recruited his players.
"One coach told me to get the hell out of here, that that's his program," Culpepper said. "I didn't take it any further than that. But I let him be aware that I know what's going on with my program. You shouldn't be calling players and going to their houses."
Parents play a role
Coaches have kept recruiting talk among themselves, but privately tell stories of coaches calling players and players contributing by using text messages to recruit other kids. The environment, however, places the bulk of the power in the hands of parents who can shop their kids among schools.
"Parents have become agents," Middleton coach Harry Hubbard said. "They think if their kid's not going to get a scholarship, they root up and go. Loyalty has gone out the door. Sometimes kids are listening to the wrong things from their parents and they end up transferring. My thing is if the kid can play, they're going to find you."
In June, Armwood running back Sirchauncey Holloway — one of Plant City's top players last season — was ruled ineligible when the FHSAA discovered his father had falsified his address after Plant City called the organization. Armwood was cleared of wrongdoing, but Holloway will miss his entire senior season.
Armwood coach Sean Callahan said every school needs an employee who will verify new student addresses.
"(Holloway) never made it to the summer," Callahan said. "We get kids moving in all the time. I'm the one that checks it. People might laugh at that, but we've kicked off kids before who weren't living at their proper address."
Among the most highly publicized transfers is Plant tight end Orson Charles, who left Riverview and is playing alongside five-star quarterback Aaron Murray. Charles has emerged as one of the nation's top tight end recruits with 29 Division I offers. His mother, Naseline, said she moved into Plant's South Tampa district so her son could attend Plant, even though it doubles the commute to her work at Brandon Regional Hospital.
"People really didn't know who I was before," Charles said. "I had wanted to go to Plant since my rising junior year, but my coach (at Riverview) made a promise to me and I made a promise to him, but he broke it."
Charles, however, isn't the only one. At Plant, running back Marco Cobb (Robinson), wide receiver Allen Sampson (Gaither) and lineman David Gamble (Tampa Catholic) are among the newcomers. Eric Dungy, the son of Colts coach Tony Dungy, received a special assignment transfer after moving from Indianapolis.
At Chamberlain, at least five players transferred from Jefferson, notably wide receivers Anthony Williams, Ed Williams and defensive back Rico Valdez. At Middleton, starting running back Rodney Johnson is at his third school in as many years.
In Pinellas County you need a chart to keep up with all the changes at quarterback, especially at Countryside, where there is a revolving door at the position.
Three Cougar quarterbacks have transferred — Blake Robles (East Lake), Ryan Eppes (Largo) and Ryan Singer (Dunedin). Robles initially transferred to Countryside from East Lake in January then decided to go back to the East Lake last week.
Pinellas County athletic director Nick Grasso thinks his county has kept recruiting in check.
"I think we've done a pretty good job of trying to curb recruiting and educate our coaches on not talking to athletes," Grasso said. "In the past few years, I don't think you've heard a lot of allegations of recruiting among our coaches. I know some of our neighboring private schools have had trouble with that in the past."
'Will go on forever'
Plant coach Robert Weiner said there aren't any more transfers than usual, but there might be more high-profile players in a high-profile sport (high school football) moving around.
"We had a lot my first year, too, but we were 3-7, so nobody talked about it," Weiner said. "In the end, and people can think it's pie in the sky or whatever, but the football field is just another classroom.
"And I'm an educator whether it's English or on the football field; I want to teach the kids we have the best we can and we do that by our words and our examples and our actions. I know in that regard, I can look my kids in the eye and myself in the mirror and know we do things the right way here."
But is there any end to the movement?
"This will go on forever," longtime Hillsborough coach Earl Garcia said. "In my opinion, absolutely there's nothing different for a parent taking their kid to a performing arts magnet to play a musical instrument. If you're the top student in engineering, you find an engineering magnet school.
"Most parents don't want their kid to be one of the ones to turn a program around. They want to go in under the microscope and then get all the bright lights."
Times staff writers Keith Niebuhr and Bob Putnam contributed to this report. Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.