In 1980, Fred Rozelle heard the whispers. After all, they were aimed at him. In replacing Floyd Lay, the longtime executive secretary of the Florida High School Activities Association, Rozelle himself wondered that summer if he had stepped into the wrong pair of shoes.
"When I first came here, I know there were a lot of people who felt, well, boy, it remains to be seen if anybody can get that job done besides Floyd Lay," Rozelle said. "People were saying "I don't know if Rozelle can do it or not.'
Eleven years later, the talk has come full circle. Today the question is, can anybody replace Fred Rozelle?
In a little less than two months, we'll find out. On July 31, Rozelle will toss the keys to his duly selected successor, Ronald Davis, and slip quietly into retirement. With him will go an era in Florida high school athletics.
As head of the private, non-profit FHSAA, Rozelle has been the highly visible point man for an organization that supervises public and private school activities for an estimated half-million Florida students. With an annual budget of more than $1.3-million and a membership of some 520 schools, the FHSAA has grown into one of the nation's largest and most-imitated state high school associations.
Smack dab in the middle of all that success has been Rozelle, the gentlemanly Lake City native who spent 27 years (1954-80) as a teacher, coach and administrator in the Pinellas County school system.
"I feel good about the fact that we've moved forward, in almost every way, from 1980 to now," Rozelle said recently. "I'm not saying I filled Mr. Lay's shoes, but I did it my way, with the help of a lot of good people. And I feel very comfortable that it's been a success."
For the past 14 months, Rozelle, 64, has been in the process of a rather lengthy goodbye. Announcing last spring his intentions to retire in 1991, Rozelle stood aside as the FHSAA board of directors reviewed 12 applicants, pared the list to three finalists, then chose Davis, the Crestview High principal who also served the FHSAA as president and executive committee member.
Since last September, Davis has worked adjacent to Rozelle in the FHSAA's modest red-brick office, learning the ropes as commissioner-designate (the position's title was changed last year) and preparing to take control Aug. 1.
"It's almost overwhelming, to think that I can come in and do the job Fred Rozelle has held," said Davis, 54. "I think I can, but just try staying up with him for a week and see what he accomplishes in a short period of time. He's amazing."
Whether criss-crossing the state by car to meet with principals and athletic directors, or manning the phone for his minimum daily requirement of problem solving, Rozelle has been a man in perpetual motion during his FHSAA tenure. In truth, the job he envisioned 11 years ago never really materialized.
"I had no idea how complicated this job would get," Rozelle said. "I wouldn't recommend it to just any administrator, no way. It has to be someone willing to put their back into it 30 hours a day, if you know what I mean.
"There's a lot of good things that happen to you in this job. A lot of things you recognize as perks. It's nice to be called commissioner and welcomed everywhere you go. But on the other hand, it takes a lot of energy. My first year, I didn't know if I was going to survive."
In recent years, Rozelle's role has taken on more of regulatory nature than ever before. With the FHSAA's ineligibility rulings challenged regularly, the increased litigation has resulted in Rozelle wearing out a path to court. The FHSAA went to court nine times in the just completed school year, winning eight. Since 1980, a FHSAA decision has prompted a judiciary battle on 45 occasions.
The ruling that opened the floodgates of litigation, the Mozingo case of 1986, ranks as Rozelle's biggest disappointment.
Despite not living in the Lakeland High school district, Chris Mozingo, a Lakeland High football player, was dressed out for a win over Winter Haven. The FHSAA ruled the game a forfeit due to the ineligibility, but a subsequent court decision, upheld by appeal, wiped out the forfeit. The Dreadnaughts, thanks to that key district victory, went on to win the state Class 5A championship.
Rozelle still rankles at the decision.
"That one got me, it really did," he said. "It got the ball rolling. People said, "Uh-oh, they lost one.' And it was a biggie, too.
"You'd like to succeed in all court cases, because you feel the rules are fair. You'd like to think the appeal before (our) executive committee should be the end of it, that there wouldn't be any going to court. It's perplexing. The violation of individual rights sometimes, when it's set aside, is a violation of the rights of the whole group. That can give you a feeling that all isn't right, and all isn't fair."
As for challenges, Rozelle sees plenty more in store for the 1990s. Managing the growth of the association is first and foremost. Florida, the fourth most populous state in the nation, now has the largest average size school in the country.
For the FHSAA, some of the indicators of that expansion have been the establishment of state championships in 26 different sports, the moving of many state tournaments to single locations, and the landing of an annual television contract with SportsChannel Florida. Rozelle also proudly points to the emergence of Florida as one of the nation's recruiting hotbeds.
But with growth comes problems.
"Things are not going to get any easier, there's no question about that," he said. "I'm more concerned about steriods than some people are. I think drugs are there, too, but steroids provide an athletic advantage. And I know there's some evidence of that already. Steroid testing is a possibility, but I favor education right now. I'm not stampeding into testing, no way."
For Rozelle, who'll hold the title of commissioner emeritus, free time will mean time to golf, fish and travel with Charlotte, his wife of 41 years. For at least a year, he'll confine work to occasional consulting _ some for the FHSAA, and possibly some to state high schools, along with ex-Pinellas County school officials Scott Rose and Eric Whitted. Home will continue to be divided between a beach condominium on Treasure Island and a condominium in Gainesville.
Too humble a man to speak of any enduring legacy, Rozelle instead points to traits that have long been his signature _ unshakable fairness and honesty.
"Well, I hope they say I was honest and that I had no special customers," he said. "I mean if the president of the association's school is a violator, he's got to know he's going to get it at least as bad as anybody else. When you do that, people believe they've been treated fairly.
"This job doesn't have to be an authoritarian, omnipotent, czar-like role like some people look at it. I look at it like I'm a CEO, and my board of directors can chastise me if they want to. And once in a while, I'll get a word said to me. But they've been good to me. Gosh, so good I can't stand it. I guess that's why I'm going."