He arrived at newly opened Land O'Lakes High in 1975 with a thick beard, thicker Long Island accent and mop of curly black hair. Nearly 31/2 decades later, John Benedetto is exiting with a head of gray and heart of mild disillusionment. After 34 years at the school — 32 as head football coach — Benedetto is leaving on terms not entirely his own. Because his teaching contract isn't being renewed, the former standout University of Tampa receiver is walking from the sideline four wins shy of career victory No. 200. "You can sit back and say (such a milestone) is not important," said Benedetto, who finishes with a record of 196-149. "But it's important to any coach." Well, Coach, if it's any consolation, you've left a pretty indelible mark, as your peers and pupils attest. The following is a reflection of Benedetto's career, by far the winningest of anyone who has coached football exclusively in Pasco County:
3-0 vs. Zephyrhills (Sept. 9, 1977)
Benedetto's inaugural triumph came at the expense of predecessor Dan Sikes, who left for Zephyrhills following the 1976 season after starting the Gators program the year before. According to a Times report of the game, the Gators collected nearly as many penalty yards (92) as total yards (113), but they prevailed on Mark Peterson's 31-yard field goal late in the third quarter.
29-0 vs. Wiregrass Ranch (Nov. 14, 2008)
Playing without starting quarterback Stevie Weatherford (broken collarbone), the Gators get a solid debut from sophomore Tanner Stocker (9-for-13, 108 yards) and pounce on five Wiregrass Ranch turnovers. For good measure, senior kicker Alex Spock nails a 49-yard field goal.
Because coaches typically wince and waffle when asked to single out their best player or team, we're making the following choices for Benedetto:
In four seasons as the Gators' starting quarterback, Drew Weatherford established Pasco County career records for passing yardage (7,657) and touchdown passes (79), compiling most of those numbers while doubling at safety. Land O'Lakes was 34-14 when Weatherford started, twice reaching the third round of the playoffs — the farthest any Gators team has gone.
The 2002 squad, led by Weatherford and senior wideout Logan Payne, was the winningest (12-1) of Benedetto's 32 seasons and advanced further in the playoffs than any previous Gators team. Weatherford led the state with 39 TD passes; Payne led Florida with 72 receptions. Among Land O'Lakes' 16 seniors: Benedetto's son, Gio.
We're going with the 1986 team that lost its first five games, including three by a combined 12 points, before winning its last five behind running back and Gulf Coast Conference Player of the Year Todd Edkins. "As many years as I've watched his teams play, if you thought he had a down team, sometime during that season he was going to come back up," former Gulf and Hudson coach (and current Cobras assistant) Keith Newton said.
A loyal following
You'd be hard-pressed to find marriages that have remained intact as long as the nucleus of Benedetto's coaching staff. Here are the longest tenured assistants, with the year they joined his staff in parentheses:
Al Claggett (1977)
Bill Gebauer (1977)
Tom Carter (1988)
Rock Ridgeway (1992)
Benedetto by the numbers
5 Playoff victories he guided the Gators to
12 Consecutive years he led the Gators to the playoffs before retiring
18 Winning seasons
62 Age Benedetto turns April 19
What they're saying
"I lost my high school coach, my mentor and my friend all in one day."
Tom Carter, longtime assistant and 1984 Land O'Lakes graduate
"You always knew John was going to be prepared. … Someone who has been there at the same place as long as he's been, he's established himself as a great coach, and he was always tough to coach against."
Keith Newton, former Hudson and Gulf coach (and current Cobras defensive coordinator)
"He's the one who taught me how to coach. I had playing experience from high school and college, but I had never coached. I didn't know anything about coaching when I first got to him. He gave me every opportunity and all the freedom in the world to learn how to do it. … All those (assistants) in general, all those hours of sitting around and talking, 100 percent influenced the way I coached."
Tim Stevens, River Ridge coach, who spent 12 seasons as a Gators assistant
"I think it was an honor to play for him. I think a lot of kids would say the same thing. Not only as a football coach, but he was also a great, great teacher. I know a lot of kids could go to him if they needed help in anything, just needed someone to talk to. He was always there. … He wasn't just known as a football coach around the high school, he was also known as a good teacher."
Caz Piurowski, FSU senior tight end and 2006 Land O'Lakes graduate