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T.B. TECH'S GRAIL: BEAT ARMWOOD

C.C. Culpepper says he isn't much of a gambling man, unless you count leaving Armwood High after two state championships to be defensive coordinator for a moribund program coming off an 0-10 season.

Or taking the head coaching job of that program after a second straight 0-10 season cost the previous coach his job.

Or upon doing so, boldly predicting that his team, in the midst of a 20-game losing streak, would win a state title in three years.

For a nongambling man, Tampa Bay Tech's savior and head coach isn't shy about pushing in all his chips.

And so it is with this week's game at Armwood, a game without district or playoff implications, yet a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown on which Culpepper is ready and willing to wager his team's heart and soul.

"We're going all out," he said. "It's the only way I know how to do things, and it is what it is, Armwood and us, the big game of the week. I'm going at the guys like it's the biggest game of their lives. Because it is."

Armwood has always been the standard by which Culpepper measured his football successes, first as a Hawks player, then in his time there as a defensive backs coach and on to his first head coaching job at Tampa Bay Tech.

There is no team he wants to beat more. He has declared Thursday's matchup his fast-rising program's Rubicon.

No turning back.

At times, reaching the Armwood standard has driven the emotional Culpepper near to madness.

First, there was an acrimonious departure from Armwood, which frayed relationships that to this day haven't healed.

Second, there was his near obsession with beating the Hawks.

Combined, it has made this series personal.

"I was a little hotheaded about beating Armwood," he said. "I really thought we could do it that first year."

Culpepper was too eager to prove wrong those who questioned his decision to leave Armwood for a program that had proved to be a graveyard for coaches.

Since he left Seffner, there has been postgame pungency, biting barbs fired by both sides, message board bickering that makes this a lively rivalry.

Culpepper denies any hard feelings, but an edginess still fills the air between these teams. He said he met with coach Sean Callahan and his staff at a junior varsity game last week in hopes of smoothing out the rougher edges.

It's all part of a maturation process, Culpepper said. In the beginning, he said, he made beating Armwood too much about him.

Now, however, he said he has grown as a coach.

Instead of raging, he criss-crosses the field before each game barefoot, listening to Fred Hammond and Marvin Sapp crooning gospel music, singing along about being blessed.

He said Thursday's game, and others like it, isn't about him anymore.

It's about his Titans, a team he thinks is set to ascend into the pantheon of great programs, ready or not.

If the Titans beat the Hawks, they will have defeated Hillsborough's holy trinity - Hillsborough, Plant and Armwood - in a six-game span dating to last year, an unheard-of feat.

"Even with a win, we're still not going to be put up there with the Armwoods, Plants and Hillsboroughs; that's just the nature of the beast here at Tampa Bay Tech," Culpepper said. "We were 10-2 last year and people said we didn't play anybody. It doesn't bother me; I have thick skin. But it probably bothers the kids that have been here for four years. And that's not fair."

The chip on Culpepper's shoulder from that first year is still around; it has just been repositioned and broken into smaller pieces to share with Titan players.

The team's rallying cry? "If you're going to keep treating us the way you treat us, then we're just going to keep going out and proving our point," Culpepper said.

But Tech doesn't have any state titles. It doesn't have any history to speak of. The program won its first playoff game last year. Access to the club, the Titans are learning, is a bit more expensive - it's a Terrier, a Panther and a Hawk.

Last year, the Titans had the best season in school history, losing only twice - both times to Armwood, a regular-season thumping and a season-ending postseason collapse.

The year before, the Hawks beat them 26-0.

Culpepper has done a remarkable job at Tech. Stunning, really.

He willed his team to a victory over Hillsborough last season, only to top that with a dramatic rally from 24 points down to beat Plant in this season's opener.

Culpepper said that victory proved his team could win a state championship this year.

But did it, really, if it can't beat Armwood?

Culpepper and the Titans are on a winning streak. Thursday, they will push their winnings back to the middle of the table without hesitating.

All in.

John C. Cotey can be reached at cotey@sptimes.com.

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