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Zephyrhills football coach a casualty of county recruiting investigation

ZEPHYRHILLS — Jerrell Cogmon stepped onto the practice field Monday morning at Zephyr­hills High School and became the first African-American head coach in program history.

Less than 24 hours later he was fired, a result of a Pasco County investigation into illegal recruiting practices. Cogmon, who replaced longtime football coach Tom Fisher in April, met with Pasco County athletic director Phil Bell and Zephyrhills principal Steve Van Gorden, who remained on campus Tuesday to address parents' concerns.

A few players mulled around outside Zephyrhills' locker room after morning practice. Several assistant coaches declined comment.

Bulldogs quarterback Chris Reaves said he was "in shock" after Cogmon entered the locker room before practice to tell the team he had been fired. Reaves' mother, Latrice Marbra, was at the school searching for answers.

"It's ridiculous," Marbra said. "I don't understand how they could wait until the last minute when they knew (Monday) was the deadline for these kids to transfer to another school. They could have done it a better way.

"I would have taken my son out of the school. … My son called me crying and said he didn't want to play football anymore."

The single mother of five, who attended Zephyrhills, said her son is at a critical point in his playing career as a junior hoping for a college scholarship. In addition to being a good coach, she credits Cogmon with helping Reaves improve academically.

"I like the things he's doing with my son," Marbra said. "My son never had a 3.1 (grade point average) … compared to the 2s and the 1s he had."

The search for a replacement has begun, 16 days before the Bulldogs' preseason game against Riverview. Van Gorden would not put a timetable on a hire. Assistants and ZHS alums Greg Mathis and Troy Hochstetler will be in charge of day-to-day operations in the short-term.

Van Gorden said he and Bell will craft a letter to the Florida High School Athletic Association to self-report violations.

No other coaches will be affected, and the program will not self-impose sanctions.

"The head coach is responsible for the total program," Bell said. "Without going into detail, yes, there were other situations that will be reported as well."

Cogmon, who turned 35 on Tuesday, said by phone that he would seek the advice of his lawyer before presenting his side in greater detail.

"They kicked me off campus," said Cogmon, who does not teach at the school. " … I told the kids as I was grabbing my stuff. They said because potential violations did occur they were going to self-report and go in a different direction. In all honesty, I didn't violate any rules.

"I spoke with my coaches about not recruiting other players. A coach admitted he was the one that communicated with the kids. I had no prior knowledge of that or anything like that. It's tough to have to tell 50 kids two weeks before the first game you're not going to be their coach."

The investigation was launched after Wesley Chapel filed a complaint with Bell. Zephyrhills volunteer assistant Abel Robinson was let go Thursday after admitting he had improper communication with students at Wesley Chapel, where he teaches and coached last year. Robinson adamantly denied trying to entice players to transfer to Zephyrhills.

Without naming students, Bell said Van Gorden is concerned one could be ineligible and will rely on the FHSAA to make a ruling. Robinson said the only Wesley Chapel transfer to Zephyrhills was sophomore-to-be Jamal Roberts.

"It is our responsibility to make sure we advocate for kids," Bell said. "If there's a chance a kid could be ineligible (Van Gorden) will do everything he can to get a hardship waiver to see if that can be reversed. It's not fair for a student-athlete to be put in a negative situation if an adult has helped that situation."

The FHSAA prohibits coaches from contacting players at other schools and players following coaches to new schools.

Cogmon spent two seasons at Leto, where his teams went a combined 4-16. He resigned in 2004 to pursue his master's degree. The 1992 Plant graduate played three seasons at Bethune-Cookman.

Marbra said she and her son are behind Cogmon "100 percent" and that they picked the wrong coach to use as an example of cracking down on recruiting.

"Suspend him," Marbra said. "Give him a little probation. Why fire him? Give him a second chance. Everyone is entitled to one mistake. He deserves a chance just like everyone else."

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Zephyrhills football coach a casualty of county recruiting investigation 08/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 12, 2009 6:35am]
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