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Widow of famed coach back in the fold

The former matriarch of Plant High football hasn't been to a Panthers game in years.

She lost interest right around the time she lost her husband. Fact is, when the program was really floundering a half-decade or so ago, it pained her to even peek at the game scores.

Not anymore.

From the same cream-colored Wellswood home she shared with husband Roland during his glorious 22-year reign over Panthers football, Naomi Acosta has followed the program's resurgence on TV and in the papers.

She is certain that, somewhere celestial, the man she married in Ybor City on Christmas Day 1955 is watching, too.

"Oh, he'd be proud of them," she said.

A generation ago, Plant was the resident football dynasty, and Roland Acosta was the diminutive, detail-oriented emperor. Its roster annually was rife with talent, and its field house was adorned with amenities that would make some college coaches wince.

From 1975-92, the Panthers did not have a losing season and reached the Class 4A semifinals in 1976 and '78. When Acosta retired in 1994, five years before his shocking death from scleroderma, he had compiled a 164-67 record with five seasons of 10 wins or more. For those who lived through that prosperous era, it's virtually impossible to think of the current Panthers - 13-0 and making the program's first state semifinal appearance since '78 - without remembering the man in whose honor the current field house is named.

"He'd be very proud of them, keeping on the tradition," said Debbie Jones, the youngest of Roland and Naomi's two daughters, who married one of her dad's offensive linemen.

"I mean, Coach (Bob) Weiner has done a great job. (Her father) had them very disciplined, very structured, and Coach Weiner has them along those same lines."

Naomi sees the parallels.

Though she hasn't been to a game this year and expects to babysit at least one of her two grandsons (ages 5 and 2) when the Panthers host Miami Washington in Friday's Class 4A semifinals, she has met Weiner, watched the team scrimmage and seen some of her husband's influence on the current club.

"He invited us one day to a practice that they had before the season," recalled Naomi, who still dabbles in the real-estate business she and Roland started in their home before his death at age 66 in June 1999.

"I saw the boys coming out two by two like my husband used to do. I mean, there were just a lot of things. I think he will do real well."

Routine and repetition, meticulousness and mastery of formations - before and during games - were staples of Acosta's tenure at the South Tampa school. So was Naomi, a stay-at-home mom characterized by many as the prototypical coach's wife.

"Of course, Roland was a relentless worker," former longtime Acosta assistant Vince Sussman said, "and she gave him the latitude he needed to do his job."

That job entailed every particle of the program. Darlee Nelson, who assisted Acosta for nine seasons and spent six years (1998-2003) as Panthers coach, called his former boss a "stickler for detail" who brought a micro-management philosophy to his squad. Every blitz and blocking scheme was practiced until perfected, with time set aside to practice how the Panthers would enter the field (two by two, don't outwalk the person next to you) and even line up for the national anthem.

"We'd be on the sideline, toes on the line, heads up and helmets underneath the right arm," recalled Nelson, now student intervention specialist at Armwood. "Not feet on the line, toes on the line."

Former Plant and University of Florida linebacker Jimmy Kalamaras, who played for Acosta in the mid 1970s, concurred.

"I think they even told us how to tie our shoes and pull up our socks," Kalamaras said half-jokingly. "That's really what Coach Acosta believed in; he was about discipline, and we were going to have strength through unity."

Game days would begin before dawn, with Roland hitting a local coffee shop before arriving at school. They would end with the entire staff - coaches, wives, kids - convening at a Pizza Hut on South Dale Mabry.

Film breakdown would consume a chunk of the autumn weekends.

"Weekends? How 'bout (Friday) night until 1, 2 or 3 in the morning," Naomi recalled.

"Pretty much, it was part of our life," said Debbie, who plans to attend Friday's game with husband Jeff Jones, a 1985 Plant alumnus. "For all my life, that was all we did, and we always did it as family."

That familial philosophy also was prevalent in the field house, where Acosta endeared himself to players by serving as surrogate father to many and doting on all by providing every amenity he could scrounge or solicit.

"If you played for my husband, you were sure your son was going to be well taken care of with the best (equipment)," Naomi said. "He knew a lot of people, he knew how to ask for things, and they would give it to him.

"He used to go down to the Bucs and (then-coach John) McKay would tell him, 'I'm getting rid of this desk and this table. It's new, Roland. If you can get a truck, you can have it.' "

Inevitably, though, things changed.

A county-mandated centralized funding policy for athletics somewhat leveled the playing field in terms of equipment and facilities. The old palatial field house was gutted to make way for a new gym, and a series of mediocre seasons started wearing on Acosta.

In 1993 and '94, Acosta's final two seasons, Plant won a total of four games. An era had ended.

Now, under a different leader, it is being resurrected.

"Personally, I think (Acosta) would be awfully excited on one hand, but at the same time I think he would also reflect back on his (state semifinal) teams to realize how close all those teams were to making it to the finals," Kalamaras said.

"He'd probably go to Coach Weiner and give him some advice, since he had been there (two) times already. Sometimes, it's the little things that make a difference in these kinds of games."

Joey Knight can be reached at (813) 226-3350 or jknight@sptimes.com.

Class 4A semifinal

Plant (13-0) hosts Miami Booker T. Washington (12-1) at 7:30 Friday. Tickets, which go on sale Friday at 5 p.m., are $7 and parking is $2.

FAST FACTS

Remembering Roland Acosta

Years at Plant: 1973-94

Record at Plant: 164-67*

Playoff appearances: Six

Best finish: 1976, '78 (reached state semifinals)

Other honors: Western Conference coach of the year (1973); University of Notre Dame Florida coach of the year ('86); head coach, Florida-Georgia High School All-Star Game ('88); inducted into Florida Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame ('89); president, FACA (1988-89)

* Resume provided by Naomi Acosta

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