LAND O'LAKES — Four years after John Benedetto coached his last game at Land O'Lakes High, the Gators were ready to honor the man who turned a shiny, rural school into a Pasco County powerhouse.
It was one of the last games Benedetto ever saw.
Benedetto, one of the most accomplished high school football coaches in Tampa Bay history, died in his sleep Sunday evening, two days after his 66th birthday and six months after the school rechristened its stadium in his honor. Funeral arrangements are pending.
"My mother woke up this morning," his son, Giovanni, said Monday, "and he was gone."
Benedetto leaves behind one of the greatest legacies in North Suncoast coaching.
He won 196 games — more than anyone else in county history — including five playoff victories before his contract wasn't renewed after the 2008 season. He guided his team to 18 winning seasons and closed his career with 12 consecutive playoff appearances.
He spent 32 of his 34 years at Land O'Lakes as its head coach.
"You don't find that anymore," said Tom Carter, who played for Benedetto beginning in 1979 and spent more than 20 years on Benedetto's staff.
A Long Island native, Benedetto arrived at newly opened Land O'Lakes in 1975, two years before replacing Dan Sikes as coach. He never left.
Over the next three decades, Benedetto became known for his meticulous preparation, the long, white towel draped over his shoulder during games and his open-door policy for players.
"Bottom line: It's all about the kids," said Carter, who spent two seasons as the head coach at Gulf High. "It's not just about football. That's what he taught me. It's bigger than that."
Benedetto's personality spawned a legion of loyal alumni that showed its passion last year.
A group of former players successfully lobbied Pasco County Schools to rename the school's football stadium in his honor before the Gators' Oct. 19 game against crosstown rival Sunlake.
"I don't even have any words," Benedetto said as the honor was announced.
That was the last time former Gators two-way star Caz Piurowski saw his former coach.
"(Benedetto influenced) not just my (life) but anyone who came through, no matter how good a player you were," said Piurowski, a 2006 graduate who went on to play at FSU. "He was always someone you could talk to when you had problems; his door was always open. I think everyone's just shocked right now."
Benedetto showed no signs of being in poor health.
Former Gators lineman Ross Hughes said he saw Benedetto and several of his former longtime assistants — including Al Claggett, Bill Gebauer and Rock Ridgeway — at a Land O'Lakes restaurant only a week ago.
"As they were all leaving I went over to them and said hello and everything," said Hughes, who just began work at a New Hampshire restaurant. "Coach B, I was surprised because he looked so well. … Honestly, he looked better than ever."
Benedetto spent Sunday planning a golf outing for the next day with his wife and Claggett. The lifelong music lover sat at home listening to Paul Simon for an hour and went to bed with Vanie, his wife of 31 years and the Gators' unofficial team statistician, historian and mom.
"He just loved my mother so much," Giovanni said. "I've never seen a man always want to be with his wife so much."
Condolences poured in from the North Suncoast to Tallahassee and beyond.
Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford played linebacker for Benedetto and was part of the long line of Weatherfords who played at Land O'Lakes. Weatherford led last year's movement to name the school's stadium in honor of Benedetto, who spent hours mentoring and coaching Weatherford and his siblings.
"It's hard to say what my real feelings are because I am in such disbelief and shock," Weatherford said Monday from Tallahassee. "Our prayers are with the entire family. He always will be someone who will be remembered.
"He's just the kind of person you don't forget."
On Monday afternoon, a flag flew at half-staff near the entrance to the school. Not far behind, John Benedetto Stadium was quiet.
The field was unlined. The bleachers were empty. The only sounds were the grunts and groans escaping from the weight room into the spring air.
Four months before the start of next season, the program Benedetto built was carrying on.
Staff writers Joey Knight and Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report. Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected]