Max Smith seemingly had it made.
As the head football coach at Dunedin, he had revved up the fan base by guiding the program to its first winning season since 2008. Most of his skill players were returning, and his freshman class was deep in talent. He had one child at home and another on the way.
Three weeks ago, Smith stepped down as coach.
He would rather grind as a graduate assistant coach at the University of Toledo, in a job that pays little for longer hours and offers no guarantee of larger paychecks and more prestigious titles, than remain a high school coach.
His $3,400 stipend wasn't worth it. "It wasn't that tough of a choice," Smith said.
Smith is part of a statewide trend in coaching turnover that represents the glaring effect of tightened district budgets on Florida high school sports.
Districts have tried to reduce expenses through the Deferred Retirement Option Program, leading to early retirement for some of the area's coaching fixtures, including Larry Beets (Ridgewood baseball), Dan Wright (Lakewood boys basketball) and Linda McQuade (Hudson/Fivay volleyball).
Their departure leaves a glaring hole in that icon of schoolhouse lore, the veteran coach who is an essential figure in the community and a student's life. Coaching searches have produced younger candidates who could offer the longevity of some of their predecessors. But many of those up-and-coming coaches are leaving before they ever become established, lured away by better paying high school jobs in the state or the prospect of a profitable future in entry-level college positions, such as the case with Smith.
And that's if those up-and-comers even get hired in the first place.
"Principals may not appreciate the value of a coach. They're hiring teachers whom they feel can help kids excel on the FCAT, not necessarily teachers who also happen to coach," veteran Hillsborough High football coach Earl Garcia said.
"A principal is going to try to find the best instructors available. And then after all those best instructors slots are filled, then if he can find somebody who can be a department head, then it's still trickling down. Where on the food chain does assistant or head football coach lie? It all depends on the individual school."
Smith, 28, walked away after his second year at Dunedin.
"I love coaching high school football," he said. "Unfortunately, it doesn't pay anything. If I stayed, in 10-15 years down the road I'd be making another $4,000 more combined teaching and coaching.
"The average position coach in the (Mid-American Conference) makes between $75,000-$90,000. I'm not there yet, but I'm in a good situation where I feel I'll be taken care of and can get to that point in a short amount of time."
Yusuf Shakir, a former player and assistant at Tallahassee Lincoln, was hired as Gibbs football coach in 2007. He planned to build the program into a power. Instead, he left after two seasons to return to his alma mater, where he led Lincoln to a state title in 2010.
Going home was a big factor in Shakir's decision. So was the pay. The stipend for head football coaches in Leon County is $4,432, about $1,000 more than a head coach in Pinellas. That does not include additional pay for each round of the playoffs, something Pinellas does not offer.
"When I first became a head coach at Gibbs, I was young, single and had no kids," Shakir said. "I was happy just to be a head coach and didn't care what I was making. I think that becomes more prevalent as you get older and start having a family and kids and then start thinking about retirement. You spend your entire time taking care of everybody else's kids that eventually you realize it's time to start taking care of yourself."
Garcia envisions a day when the full-time, dedicated coach is extinct.
"It's not going to be long before we're going to have all drive-by coaches," he said. "I'm going to have guys drive up to school, coach, get in their car and drive home. I think it's a gross injustice to our kids."
Times staff writers Joey Knight and Matt Baker contributed to this report. Bob Putnam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BobbyHomeTeam.