Quite a few schools in the bay area have new football coaches this season, and the Times will profile some of them this week. First up: Wesley Chapel's Ben Alford
WESLEY CHAPEL — It is windy, and lightly raining, and Wesley Chapel football coach Ben Alford is asked to characterize his offensive line.
So, naturally, he tries to sing.
"We're not too big,
And we're not too tough,
But when we work together,
We've got the right stuff."
It's the Wonder Pets theme song, and the last place you expect to hear it is here, on a football field, where a kid carrying a ball was just knocked silly.
But you wonder: is it a homage to Alford's sons, soon-to-be 3-year-old Brayton and 1-year-old Taylen, who are watching their dad from the nearby sideline, or a Freudian dig at his critics, who say he is too young, too inexperienced to be a head coach?
And will he show up in the fall with his game plans rolled up and tucked neatly away in a Dora the Explorer backpack?
• • •
Of all the new football hires this offseason, Alford, a former all-state quarterback at nearby Pasco, may be the most interesting.
The former staff of assistants resigned before he could even hang his whistle in his new office. Some said his resume didn't have enough on it, and others requested to see what little was apparently there so they could go through and find something incriminating. Parents called, concerned.
He was 25 when he was hired in February, one of the happiest moments in a young life quickly sullied by a wave of skepticism.
"He was disappointed," said athletic director Steve Mumaw. "He probably had to spend two weeks to a month defending himself."
Alford was disappointed, for a while. But six months later, with a 28-0 spring victory under his belt and his players happy to have him, he is playfully returning fire.
"Hey, it's my birthday today," he says with a chuckle. "I'm 26. Now, it's not as bad. I mean, hiring a 25-year-old coach? That was ridiculous."
Despite his youth, and despite his relative inexperience compared with most of the 97 other applicants, Alford was the surprise choice of Wesley Chapel to replace the only coach in the program's 10-year history, John Castelamare.
His coaching experience is limited to a year helping out at North Iowa Area Community College while he waited tables, and a few offseasons helping out at Pasco.
He was the biggest underdog in the field, hoping to just get his name out there and learn from the process, but he beat out current coaches and former coaches, including one who was 9-2 last season at Jesuit, and a longtime Wesley Chapel assistant who was considered the favorite.
It will prove to be either an irresponsible reach or a successful bold stroke.
"The backlash," Mumaw said, "was a little more than we anticipated."
No matter, it was a gutsy call, if not a needed one.
Despite a few 10-0 seasons, the Wildcats never won a playoff game under Castelamare. They haven't been back to the postseason, nor have they had a winning season, since 2004. Last year the team was 3-7, the wing-T run aground. It shouldn't be disputed that Wesley Chapel was ready for a change, and Alford is certainly that.
"I heard he was young, he was from Iowa and he runs the spread … that's all I needed to hear," said senior John Ayers. "Coach has been great. It's a totally different atmosphere around here."
Which is exactly what Wesley Chapel had in mind when it hired Alford.
"I'm sure the fact that he's young has a lot of positives," said Atif Austin, the first-year coach at Tarpon Springs who spent the previous six seasons as an assistant coach at Northern Iowa. "One, he's going to be there a number of years. Two, he will come in and change the culture. And three, he will grow as a coach with the team."
One of his players was Alford, who Austin said was a fierce competitor who always put in extra time in the meeting room and seemed destined for a career in coaching.
Austin, 31, doesn't see Alford's age as a detriment, and says you can't discount his experience as a player.
Alford was born and raised in Lacoochee, has played football since he was 9, was a star at quarterback in high school and fought against great odds to become an honorable mention All-American at North Iowa Area Community College in 2006. An injury in 2007 sped his entry into coaching.
Hiring young coaches like Austin, or Countryside's Jared Davis (26), may be a growing trend, with the idea they can better relate to today's player, but it will always rub longtime assistants the wrong way.
But as Alford points out, he didn't hire himself. He merely went after something he wanted, and delivered a package Wesley Chapel was looking for.
"He was one of 98 people who applied, who went through the interviews, so he obviously impressed someone on the committee," Austin said. "I'm not sure there has to be any paying of any dues if you can do that. But time will tell. In my opinion, there's only one place for that program to go, and it's up. I think they got their man."
Soon, we'll know if Alford, like the Wonder Pets he watches with his two young boys, has the right stuff.
John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected]