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Another dominant Plant defense with James Harrell back in fold

Plant High defensive coordinator James Harrell offers a little sideline advice to cornerback Aaron King during practice.
Plant High defensive coordinator James Harrell offers a little sideline advice to cornerback Aaron King during practice.
Published Dec. 2, 2016

TAMPA — When James Harrell left Jesuit High School in 2012 after three years as head coach, he knew he wasn't done with football.

He wasn't exactly sure what he was going to do next, but it would almost certainly involve being on a sideline somewhere.

That somewhere ended up being Grayson, Ky., site of Kentucky Christian University. It was 2013, and as part of an NFL program for those who wanted to be college coaches, Harrell was working with the Knights' NAIA program.

He lasted one year before coming back to Tampa. He reunited with head coach Robert Weiner at Plant in 2014 as a special advisor/linebackers coach. Last year, he was elevated to defensive coordinator, a position he held when the Panthers won state championships in 2006 and '08.

This year's defense has been one of the school's best. Plant (12-0) allows 10 points per game. Harrell has played a big role in the defense's success. And, at age 59, he is right where he wants to be as a coordinator. His head coaching days are over.

"There is an African proverb, 'Tall trees catch wind,' " Harrell said. "I don't want to catch that wind.

"I don't think head coach at a high school is in the mix for me. I have no desire. At this point in my career I'm not going to teach a class, and I don't want to be on campus for 12 hours at my age. I'm happy with being the coordinator."

Harrell graduated from Chamberlain in 1975 and played four years at Florida. After his nine-year professional career ended, he started his high school coaching career.

It began at Tampa Catholic in 1990. From there he spent 11 seasons as an assistant at Jesuit, where he coached with Weiner under head coach Dominick Ciao. In 2005, Harrell joined Weiner as the defensive coordinator.

After a brief stint as Freedom's head coach in 2009, Harrell was selected as Jesuit's first African-American head coach in 2010. He was 29-6 in his three years with the Tigers.

That's not to say there weren't some rough patches. He had three offensive coordinators in as many seasons. And some were irked when Harrell's son, Anthony, was allowed to transfer from Freedom to Jesuit for his senior year. Jesuit normally does not allow juniors or seniors to transfer in.

"It all started at Jesuit, really," Harrell said. "It was a blessing to be back there in 2010. They gave me a chance to be a head coach. It was a hurdle and there was some resentment for (Anthony) to be there, but it was what I wanted and not necessarily what he wanted."

His former team, like his current team, is still in the playoffs. In a perfect world, Harrell said, both Jesuit and Plant would be hoisting state trophies in two weeks.

"I have no ill feelings about Jesuit; I'm pulling for them," Harrell said. "It would be great for us to win a state title and for them to win a state title. That would be awesome."

What's awesome for Weiner is having Harrell back on his staff.

"James is a tremendous football mind," Weiner said. "I think he's one of the most outstanding coaches about in-game adjustments. As a head coach, sometimes I just go down to him and say 'We're giving up the dive. Stop the dive.' And the thing about James, he has an immediate answer to everything. He has a way to make it right."

Of course, Harrell can't be a good coach without good players. He pointed out junior defensive lineman Judge Culpepper (59 tackles, eight sacks), senior linebacker Thomas Allen (123 tackles, 44 tackles for a loss), senior defensive back Juwan Burgess (47 tackles, two interceptions) and senior defensive back Whop Philyor (29 tackles, two interceptions, 18 pass deflections) as standouts. Several others have made it difficult all season for offenses to move.

Could this be another championship defense under Harrell's watch?

"I think this is one of the best, at least statistic-wise," Harrell said. "I think this is the best we've had as far as total offense allowed (under 200 yards).

"But you can't be great until you win it all."

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