When Pasco plays North Marion in tonight's Class 3A region final, it will mark perhaps the most notable resuscitation of a program in North Suncoast history. The man responsible is Pasco coach Tom McHugh, who quite frankly could walk into any restaurant in Dade City at this point and get a free meal. In two seasons as coach, McHugh has led the Pirates to two district titles, a Sunshine Athletic Conference title and the third round of the playoffs — only the third time it has happened in program history.
"I can't say honestly I thought it could happen like this," Pasco athletic director Jim Ward said. "I felt confident district titles would come. We told Tom (when he was hired) wins are great, but discipline was more important. Get the discipline back in the program and the wins will come."
Discipline has become the cornerstone of McHugh's success.
"I'm asking kids to do things against the way God put them together, and they're doing it," McHugh said. "Honestly, I think they don't want to disappoint me. I don't yell at them. I talk to them. I've had to sit guys. I put my arm around them and tell them this is why I have to do it. I never want to have to do that again. It's actually harder for me to tell them because I know what it's like."
McHugh demanded respect from Day 1 when he took over two years ago for Dale Caparaso (now coach at Spoto). McHugh proudly proclaims he is a student of Wesley Chapel coach John Castelamare, for whom he was a defensive coordinator. Castelamare has a no-nonsense reputation and so does McHugh.
McHugh hasn't simply bought into a philosophy. He truly believes he has a purpose, and by sticking to it his coaching style falls into place.
"They are men," McHugh said of his players. "I was married when I was 19. I consider them men. It's our job to make men of them. You're 18 years old. I'm going to treat you like you want to be treated, and now we'll see how you react to this."
When McHugh took over a program that had taken a downturn with just five wins total in the two years before his arrival, the coaches had lost the locker room. And when McHugh began to rein it in, some kids walked.
"When he stepped in the door you could feel his presence," Pasco senior Jarrod Carmody said. "There was some resistance from some of the older guys. After a while, you really felt McHugh was the way to go. He was put together, straightforward and intelligent.
"As soon as he stepped in the door you knew he was the guy."
McHugh had no easy road to this early success.
The first week of the 2007 season turned tragic when the youngest of McHugh's three daughters, Brenna, was severely hurt in a car accident. She has since recovered and is studying to become a nurse.
McHugh attended preseason practices, then rushed to Tampa to be by Brenna's hospital bed. Somehow he mustered enough inspiration for his new team to guide it to a stunning opening-night upset of Land O'Lakes with a 15-10 victory.
"It was a breath of fresh air," Ward said of the win. "We were on our way. We beat Land O'Lakes and our first test was over with. He wasn't there for every practice, but he put a staff together that could be trusted to do what could be done. It was his first win."
McHugh is 17-6 in two seasons, and with 20 seniors departing from this year's team his toughest coaching task might be ahead of him. But in two seasons he has gained the respect of a locker room and his coaching peers, and as Ward predicted, the wins have followed.
"He doesn't talk to us like we're teenagers, and that's important," Carmody said. "He treats us like young adults and like we have brains. He's constantly straightforward with you. Like it or not, he's going to tell you how it is.
"He's not trying to impress anyone. He is who he is."
Izzy Gould can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 580-5315.