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Former Tarpon High football star takes over as new coach

Atif Austin is coming to a place he knows. To a place where he flirted with his wife-to-be on the way to math class.

It's the school where he rushed for the single-game high record of 368 yards, a place where the community begins, meets and ends at the town's only high school.

Austin, 31, arrives Thursday to take the reins of a Tarpon Springs High football program that reached the region finals last year. Former head coach George Kotis resigned earlier this year.

"I was a kid who walked those halls and played under Don Davis, Bruce Buck and coach Kotis," Austin said from Iowa, where he's been an assistant coach at the University of Northern Iowa. "I know their expectations. They're going to have their style and I'll have mine. But the goal will always be the same, and that's being a good football team."

It was a tough decision — come home or stay on a path to a big name college coaching or even the NFL?

Austin said it's yet to be determined if it's a positive.

"No matter where you are, there are going to be supporters and critics," he said. "But with any coach, I want the players to be well coached so that they can play hard and play with passion.

"But that's already a foundation that has already been built at Tarpon. It has a tradition of winning and the kids care about what's going on in the realm of football."

• • •

Austin came to Tarpon Springs when he was in middle school. He was raised in the Union Academy area, participating in programs at the Citizens Alliance for Progress and the police department-sponsored Cops & Kids.

City Manager Mark LeCouris was the police chief at the time and in charge of the Cops & Kids program.

"He's just one of those kids that you knew would succeed," LeCouris said. "Anything he did, he put his full effort into it. He's a shining example that it's not all sports. You have to work hard and combine the academics with the athletics and you can do something positive for the rest of your life."

At Tarpon High, Austin was an honor roll student and the 1997 Pinellas County Player Of The Year, after rushing for 1,995 yards and 16 touchdowns.

He went on to Iowa State University, where he was a four-year starting defensive back. He married his wife, Tori, in December 2000, his sophomore year in college, and is now the father of three.

In 2003, Austin was presented Iowa State's Reuben J. Miller Award, given to the student whose conduct on and off the field brought honor to the school.

In 2005 he earned a master's degree in Leadership and Education from Southwest Minnesota State, where he had continued to work in football as a graduate assistant .

Later, he landed assistant coaching assignments at the University of Northern Iowa.

In 2007, Atif was selected to attend the NCAA Football Coaching Academy, which targets and prepares minority head coaches.

The following year, as the running backs coach, he helped a UNI back break the school's all-time rushing record with 4,003 yards.

"My mom always instilled in me that I was going to go to college and that it was imperative that we go to college," Austin said. "It was embedded in my brain."

"The dream was, I was going to be a writer and he was going to go to the NFL," said Tori, a community college educator. "Truthfully, what we have now is better than the dream. For us to be in this situation, being ecstatic about going to work every day and loving what we do, being involved and trying to make a positive impact on everyone around us. … I think we got the better end of the deal."

Pressure

Every night, Austin speaks with Davis, his former coach. Davis has taken on running the weight room and keeping in contact with Tarpon's football players until Austin can get into place.

"He's the only person I'd come back and do this for," Davis said. "I'm so impressed by him. It's going to be very interesting for me to sit here and watch him develop. … I think Atif, looking down the road, will be a principal in this county."

Christine Austin knows the pressure that her son will be under. The single mother of five has confidence in him, saying he's always been "an honorable young man." But, she said, it's not about him.

"His goal and purpose is about bringing the experience that he has and getting these kids prepared for college," she said. "That's what this town needs. … I believe Atif can do that."

Former Tarpon High football star takes over as new coach 03/30/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2010 9:26pm]
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