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Coming Home // COACH NEVER LEFT

(ran PAS edition)

John Benedetto is not the only head football coach the Gators have ever known, but he might as well be.

You would be hard pressed to find people in the community who remember Dan Sikes, head coach of the first Land O'Lakes High football team in 1975. That's because he left after two seasons, opening the way for Benedetto.

"John and I have been here forever, since the school opened," said defensive coordinator Al Claggett, who along with Benedetto, secondary coach Bill Gebauer and former junior varsity coach Jerry English came to Land O'Lakes High as assistants in 1975.

"We're all close friends," Benedetto said. "The coaching staff (which also includes Tom Carter, Bill Garcia, Rock Ridgeway, Tim Stevens and Rad Milstead) has a great relationship. We all like each other. We're very supportive."

Longevity aside, Benedetto is approaching a career milestone. Yet with a 98-106 overall record that includes a 1-5 playoff mark going into Friday night's game, he downplays the forthcoming 100th victory.

"That's supposed to be a big milestone," Benedetto scoffed, "but that means absolutely nothing to me. The kid who comes back and tells me, "Coach, thanks, I learned a lot,' that's what gives me a good feeling."

Claggett, who, like Benedetto and English, got his coaching start with Sanders Middle School (now Sanders Elementary), does not put much stock in the inevitable record either.

"I think I understand his reaction," Claggett said. "It might be different if (Benedetto's record) was 98-15."

Benedetto does not take much solace that he may reach the century mark in a losing year. But he hopes the Gators can salvage the season and qualify for one of two district playoff berths.

The Gators have struggled recently, going 4-17 over the past two years before winning just once in their first four games this season. But Land O'Lakes also has had its share of success. The Gators and the Pasco Pirates each have five district championships, tied for the most in Pasco County.

"That's got to say something," Benedetto said. "Maybe that's the reason I'm still the head coach."

Claggett said he feels it's because of Benedetto's "awareness and understanding of his players' talents and his awareness of what's going on in the game."

Claggett is the more demonstrative coach, barking in the faces of his players to motivate them, while Benedetto is the self-described "buffer man."

When the two disagree, Gebauer said, "I kind of stand in the middle and referee the fights."

Despite his current team's struggles, Benedetto said, "We feel as though this year's team is better than last year's. We don't have an abundance of athletes here. A lot of kids who play for us have to play both ways. Sometimes you feel you're sucking all the blood out of these kids."

To this day, Benedetto says becoming Land O'Lakes' head coach "is the best thing that's ever happened to me," adding that he is content with simply being able to continue doing something he loves.

"I've been involved with football for 40 years as a player or as a coach," he said, "so I just feel honored that I have an opportunity to be real close to the game.

"I still kind of get that feeling on Friday nights that I got when I was 17 playing on Saturday afternoons (at Lawrence High School on Long Island) in New York. Just to stand there and listen to the Star Spangled Banner gives you that feeling in your stomach."

After playing split end and safety in high school, Benedetto was invited to be a walk-on for the University of Tampa football team. Once there, he earned a scholarship and was a four-year starter. Benedetto became the Spartans' leading receiver in 1967 with 39 catches for 479 yards and a touchdown. In 1988, he was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame.

Benedetto has learned something every step of the way, win or lose. Sure, he has lost games, but he also coached Land O'Lakes to back-to-back district championships in 1992 and 1993. The Gators' other district titles came in 1978, 1987 and 1988.

Winning a championship, he said, "is a darn good feeling; what it takes to be a winner, how hard you have to work, how much you have to listen."

Benedetto says he does not plan to quit coaching any time soon, but knows that one day someone else will lead Land O'Lakes football players into Gator Stadium.

"When I finally leave coaching," he said, "I don't want anything big. When I leave, I just want a few people to think, "he was a good football coach.' "

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