CARROLLWOOD — When Jason Stokes walked off the football field following Middleton's High's victory at the end of the regular season at Blake in November, little did he know it would be his last time as the Tigers' coach.
Just days into the offseason, Middleton's administration let Stokes go.
Stokes, 36, had been the coach responsible for the miracle at Bloomingdale in 2008. Then in the two seasons that followed, he led Middleton to a 10-10 record in a competitive district. But about two months ago, his future was uncertain.
Meanwhile, across town, the offseason purge of Tampa coaches also included Gaither's Mark Kantor, who was dismissed after nine seasons and a 42-56 record at the school. It didn't take Gaither assistant principal Marie Whelan long to target a replacement.
By mid-January, Gaither had a new coach for the first time since 2002, and Stokes had a new team.
"I'm extremely happy," Stokes said last week after meeting with the Cowboys for the first time. "Gaither has a great program. I was attracted to this job because of the kids, the administration, the parents and the community support. Middleton just decided to go in a different direction, and those things happen."
Moving forward, he intends to make Gaither football a family affair. That, Stokes says, is the basis of his coaching philosophy.
"We want to create a family. That is the biggest thing to get across. Make sure everyone knows they have a role to play. We build on that, and that's how you become successful."
Success has eluded the Gaither football program lately.
The Cowboys won just eight of 31 games during the past three seasons, and that rough stretch miraculously included a playoff appearance. Injuries and transfers hurt, but even when the Cowboys were healthy, the losses still came. At one point, Gaither suffered through a stretch of 14 losses in 15 games. The team also had an ugly brawl last season against Alonso that resulted in 19 player suspensions and a $3,200 fine from the Florida High School Athletic Association.
None of this is lost on Stokes, who spent his first week as coach reviewing film prior to his introductory meeting with about 80 Gaither players.
"The kids I met with are hungry," he said. "They are hungry for discipline and hungry for winning. Now we as coaches have to teach leadership and work ethic, and we'll be successful."
That includes off-the-field activities as well.
Stokes said he expects academic excellence and community service from his players. He plans to seek opportunities for his players to become more involved in their community.
"I wasn't really sure what to expect," said Gaither wide receiver Carlo Perello, who attended the team meeting and will be a senior in the fall. "I had heard some rumors about him. But he surprised me — he talked about having fun, turning around the team, being a good, disciplined team and being a family."
Stokes is no stranger to rebuilding projects.
He leaves Middleton on a potential upswing. The Tigers won three of their last four games to figure in the playoff race late into the season. Middleton finished 5-5 in both 2009 and 2010.
Stokes' biggest accomplishment so far came as the head coach at Bloomingdale. In 2008, his one and only season in Valrico, Stokes guided the Bulls to a playoff appearance for the first time in the program's 25 years. But Stokes moved on to Middleton and Bloomingdale has only managed two wins in the two years since.
"Actually, Gaither kind of reminds me of Bloomingdale a little bit — a big community school with a great administration," said Stokes, a graduate of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania who will also teach physical education and driver's education in the fall.
"We just need to get to work. There's definitely something there to build on. We just have to get the kids believing and don't let them waver."
Rod Gipson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.