In his three seasons as an agile 265-pound defensive tackle at Leto High in the mid 1980s, Alonso football coach Mike Heldt never got so much as a sniff of the playoffs.
While local counterparts Plant, Jefferson, Gaither and Chamberlain punched postseason tickets during that time, Heldt's teams never even achieved a winning record. His sophomore year, the Falcons dropped four of their last five. As a junior, they lost their last three. Yet never once, Heldt says, did he consider transferring.
"We were 4-6 every year I was there," said Heldt, who evolved into an All-America center at Notre Dame and later played for two NFL teams. "And it didn't even dawn on me to think about moving."
Those words illustrate a glaring generational disparity. A quarter-century ago, a Division I prospect such as Heldt would toil three years for a mediocre team because, well, that was his school. Rarely did players switch programs.
"To transfer for athletic reasons, it wasn't even something anybody thought about," said Hudson coach Mark Nash, a 1983 Gibbs graduate and ex-Gladiators quarterback who endured consecutive 3-7 seasons as a sophomore and junior.
Now, Heldt, Nash and their colleagues find themselves in an era of de facto free agency, where local high school players change schools and iPod playlists with similar frequency. So far this summer, Heldt has watched Gaither quarterback/receiver Dylan Fisher transfer in to his school, and defensive lineman Tyler Gimbert move to Sickles.
"It sucks having to recruit your own kids," Heldt said.
So what happened from one era to the next? Perhaps a bunch of things.
The Internet, for one, transformed the business of college football recruiting from a cottage industry to a colossal one. With the click of a mouse, parents discovered scholarships were out there for the taking. Recruiting services were born. So were delusions, and parental desires to place kids in more favorable situations.
"In this day in age," Nash said, "it seems like there are so many stage parents to whom it's all about scholarships, and they've kind of taken the fun out of high school football, unfortunately, for their kids."
School district policies also became more transfer friendly. Tarpon Springs coach George Kotis, a 1983 Gulf graduate and ex-Bucs player, recalls when transferring "wasn't even a possibility." But that was before school choice and special assignment became entrenched in the prep sports vernacular.
"If you look at school choice in black and white, it's Recruiting 101," said Kotis, who watched 2008 Pasco County rushing leader Adrian Golden move to his school earlier this summer, but remains appalled by the rash of transfers. "That's what really opened it up."
Growth also may have been complicit. Think about it: Thirty years ago, a disgruntled football player at, say, Plant City, had few alternatives within a reasonable driving distance. Now there's Durant, Newsome, Armwood, Strawberry Crest, Bloomingdale and Brandon — all within a 16-mile commute.
"All these kids have to realize if you're good enough, (colleges) are going to find you," said Heldt, who's living proof. "I could list a whole bunch of people like that. The cream rises to the top and they'll find you."
But in the free agent era, such proclamations seemingly go unheard. Not only are kids moving at unprecedented rates, they're moving to the enemy.
This offseason alone, several locals including Golden (Gulf to Tarpon Springs), tailback Jameel Jackson (Tampa Bay Tech to King), quarterback Jacob Guy (Zephyrhills to Pasco) and defensive back Rodney Mills (Jefferson to Plant) have moved to natural geographic rivals.
"Years ago, you would never dream of (transferring)," said Pasco County athletic director Phil Bell, a two-sport athlete at Coventry (R.I.) High in the mid 1980s. "I would've rather not played than to go to a rival."