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Pinellas: Ex-Sponger Atif Austin hits ground running

Atif Austin, a standout running back in the late 1990s, is back to coach Tarpon Springs, which went 10-3 last season.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Atif Austin, a standout running back in the late 1990s, is back to coach Tarpon Springs, which went 10-3 last season.

Quite a few schools in the bay area have new football coaches this season, and the Times will profile some of them this week.

TARPON SPRINGS — Atif Austin spent 11 of the past 13 years in Iowa, a state where he starred as a college player and coach. It seemed as if the only thing that would entice Austin to leave was a head coaching job in college.

But Austin played high school football at Tarpon Springs, a town where school boy stars are household names. And it turned out the gravitational pull to return home was hard to ignore.

When Spongers coach George Kotis resigned in February, Austin was one of the first to apply. Tarpon Springs had plenty of applicants for the job but decided to stick with its roots and named Austin coach.

"If I was going to coach at the high school level, this is where I wanted to be," Austin said. "I played here, and I'm well known in the community. I felt I could come in, give back and help kids have a better opportunity to go on to the college level."

Austin, 31, played for the Spongers in the late 1990s. As a senior in 1997, he rushed for 1,995 yards and 16 touchdowns and was the St. Petersburg Times' Pinellas County player of the year. That same year he also rushed for a school-record 368 yards in a game against Springstead that clinched a playoff berth.

He went on to become a four-year starter at Iowa State, finishing with 173 career tackles as a defensive back.

After graduating from Iowa State, Austin enrolled in Southwest Minnesota State's graduate program and, as a graduate assistant, worked with the football team's secondary the first year and the inside linebackers in 2004.

In 2005, Austin took his first assistant coaching position at the University of Northern Iowa, working with running backs. Austin helped senior running back David Horne set Northern Iowa's single-season rushing touchdown record (17). He spent five seasons as running backs coach and added special teams duties to his role last season.

But Austin made attempts to return to Pinellas County. Last year, he applied for the head coaching position at Gibbs and was one of the finalists.

Then came the opportunity to come back to his alma mater.

Austin inherited a team that made the playoffs three times in the past four seasons, including a trip to the region finals last year. It was the first time the Spongers had advanced that far in the playoffs since their title game appearance 24 years ago.

Hired less than two months before the start of spring practice, Austin did not have much time to get acclimated to his players or install everything he wanted. The results showed in lopsided loss to Lakeland in the spring.

"No matter who was coming in, there was going to be an adjustment," Austin said. "There's new plays, new expectations."

With only one other coach on campus, Austin has had a tough time putting everything together. He worked hard over the summer, getting players to participate in 7-on-7 drills and tournaments and making sure they hit in the weight room.

"The biggest thing I've learned at this level is the coach has to wear many hats," Austin said. "The coach sometimes is the guidance counselor or trainer."

Still, the team has responded well to their demanding coach.

"It's different because some guys have new roles," left tackle Zach DeBell said. "And practices have been hard, but they're getting better. We're just going with the flow. We think we'll still have enough to have a good season."

Pinellas: Ex-Sponger Atif Austin hits ground running 08/21/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 21, 2010 8:03pm]

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