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Column | John C. Cotey

Collective missteps harming Blackwell

Marquel Blackwell could always wiggle his way out of trouble.

At Dixie Hollins, he was a master at escaping danger and improvising. At USF, he was nifty at nimbly navigating his way to big plays.

As a high school football head coach, though, the former quarterback has had the pocket quickly collapse around him.

Whether Freedom High principal Chris Farkas actually sacks Blackwell after a Monday morning DUI arrest — just a few hours before he was supposed to be at school — probably comes down to the reasons, if any, for his 29-year-old coach's latest controversy.

It will take some real doozies to salvage Blackwell's young coaching career.

Farkas is unlikely to let youth be any excuse. Heck, at age 35 he was the county's second-youngest principal when he took over in July.

He didn't say much about Blackwell's status Monday, because he hadn't talked to him yet, but know this about the principal: He wants his coaches to be beyond reproach. He holds them to a higher standard.

It's a standard that Blackwell started reaching last fall, in his second season, when he finally started to redeem himself after a dreadful coaching debut.

It started with, well, his hiring.

In 2006, Freedom endured an ugly parting of the ways midseason with former coach Adam Stegeman, who was dismissed for blowing up at a school administrator for not letting his wife into a game with her athletic pass.

Assistant Leon Brockmeier then stepped in, with Blackwell guiding the offense as coordinator, and led the Patriots to four straight wins down the stretch and a playoff spot.

That wasn't enough to get him the job though; Blackwell was hired almost two years ago to the date of Monday's DUI.

It was surprising. Critics wondering if a 26-year-old coaching neophyte was really ready to be a head coach, to run a program, to care for kids.

It hardly looked like it his first year, a 1-9 season that featured a bench-clearing brawl — not to be blamed on Blackwell but a definite black eye for a program that already had one — that drew a $1,500 fine and suspensions for seven Freedom players and an investigation a few weeks later into a verbal confrontation Blackwell had with another teacher.

Freedom football was in a tailspin, and Farkas was inheriting Hillsborough County's most misfit football program when he transferred in from Tampa Bay Tech.

With help from the booster club, he had the field resodded and the concession stands painted. He was eager for a new attitude in the football program, and he gave Blackwell a clean slate.

The coach seemed to respond.

The waters stayed calm in 2008. The team grade point average went up. The Patriots won three more games.

"He definitely took a step forward this season," Farkas said.

So this is where Blackwell was before the weekend: His principal behind him. His critics muted. His reputation on the mend.

And now?

At 3:12 a.m. Monday, Blackwell was pulled over by police. According to the Tampa Police report, Blackwell wasn't driving in a straight line and apparently couldn't walk one either when given a field sobriety test.

He refused to take a breath test.

Asked for his license, Blackwell showed the credit crunch hasn't gotten to him yet — he handed over a blue Visa card.

Blackwell also was driving with a suspended license, because he didn't have insurance.

It was the third time his license has been suspended since 2006, the previous times for not paying tickets.

For a guy working on a one-year contract still trying to fight off the perception he was too immature at 26 to be a head coach and manage a football program and the lives of 60 teenagers each spring and fall, Blackwell made a remarkably dumb mistake Monday morning.

By itself, that should cost him a nice suspension but not his job.

But for Blackwell, it won't just be that mistake weighing on Farkas' mind; it will be all of them.

In two years, his football coach has five wins, one investigation, one brawl and one DUI.

The guy who took Dixie Hollins to the Class 5A state championship game, who threw for nearly 10,000 yards at USF, who appeared to turn the corner this year in New Tampa, may have just run out of room to scramble.

John C. Cotey can be reached at johncotey@gmail.com.

Collective missteps harming Blackwell 01/05/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 6:28pm]

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