From pros to preps, former Bucs know how to coach

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| Times]
Published Oct. 31, 2014

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer players Mike Alstott, Donnie Abraham, Todd Yoder and Ryan Benjamin were not desperate for jobs. All four were just fine with life after professional football.

Or so they thought.

Despite telling themselves their football days were behind them, all four have found themselves back on the sidelines — as coaches at Tampa Bay high schools. And all four have turned around programs that have had limited success in the past decade.

Alstott is in his third season at Northside Christian in St. Petersburg. Abraham (Clearwater High) and Yoder (Calvary Christian in Clearwater) are in their second seasons. And Benjamin is in his fourth at River Ridge in New Port Richey.

Benjamin's team has clinched the school's first playoff spot since 1998. Alstott has Northside close to making the playoffs for the first time since 2006. And with a win tonight, Yoder's Warriors will nab the football program's first post­season berth.

"I'm having the time of my life," said Yoder, who also teaches weight training at the school.

From the bleachers to the sidelines

Alstott, 40, figured he would ease into retirement once his 12-year playing career with the Bucs ended. He would spend time fishing, doing charity work and watching his son Griffin play football.

He could just be Mike Alstott, local sports hero and proud dad.

But something happened on his way to retirement. He found himself back on a football sideline. Back under the scorching sun of preseason practices. Back in a tiny high school locker room filled with teenagers who barely remember his playing days.

"When my son said he wanted to play football, I thought that was great. I'd be able to sit back and watch him and enjoy it," Alstott said. "But some of the things I saw, I didn't really like what I was seeing. So I started to get involved and I found I really enjoyed it. Once I got in between those lines again, the competitive juices started flowing."

In his first season, the Mustangs went 0-10. The second season was slightly better, 3-7. This season Northside Christian, led by sophomore quarterback Griffin Alstott, is 6-2. With a win over Carrollwood Day School tonight, it is an Indian Rocks Christian win (Nov. 7 vs. Cambridge) from making the playoffs.

"To be honest, when I first got here I thought there would be enough talent to win a few games," Alstott said. "What I found out was that there was a lot of work to do. There were attitudes that needed to be changed. There were lots of ups and downs in that first year. There were a lot of people who were wondering what I was doing coaching an 0-10 team."

Abraham can relate.

Like Alstott, the former Bucs cornerback (1996-2001) didn't expect to be a coach when his playing days ended.

"As a player, I saw all the time coaches put in and I told myself there was no way I'd be a coach when I was done playing," he said.

But there he was, watching his son Devin play youth league football. He knew the coaches were doing the best they could, but Abraham, 41, also knew he could do it better. So he jumped into coaching.

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"I didn't want to be one of those parents who just yells at the coaches," Abraham said. "That's not me anyway. So instead of just sitting on the sidelines and watching things happen, I decided to get involved. I've always had a passion for helping people."

After a stint as an assistant coach at East Lake, Abraham got his first head coaching job in 2009 at Gibbs, guiding the Gladiators to their first district title that year. He left after 2010 to take an assistant job with the Arena League's Tampa Bay Storm, then returned as a high school head coach last season at Clearwater.

The Tornadoes were 0-10. The program was at rock bottom. They didn't even have a locker room because the old one was condemned.

"I guess I'm just a glutton for punishment," Abraham said. "Maybe that's the defensive back in me. We're always out there on an island. But we're making progress."

This season, Clearwater is 2-6 and much more competitive. It has led five times at halftime and taken a lead into the fourth quarter in four games.

'Absolutely miserable' without the game

Yoder, who played tight end for the Bucs from 2000-03 and also played for the Jaguars and Redskins, figured he could put the game behind him. That lasted one fall.

"I was the guy who always thought that once I was done playing I would leave the game," Yoder said. "But after a year of being absolutely miserable without it, I decided to get back into it. I never realized how much I was going to miss the game."

The Warriors were 5-5 in Yoder's first season. Now all that stands in the way of the school's first playoff berth is winless St. Petersburg Catholic. Yoder, 36, can't imagine not coaching.

"I love being around the kids and sharing my knowledge of the game and my experiences," he said. "As long as I continue to love it, I can see myself doing it for a long time."

Like his three fellow ex-Bucs, Benjamin felt the pull to coach when he stopped being a player. But unlike the other three, he had the opportunity to coach his high school alma mater.

"When this opportunity came up, obviously I went to this high school and I started thinking about the kids," Benjamin said. "If somebody didn't fill that role when I was in school, what would've happened to me? I felt it was a calling."

The River Ridge players seem to appreciate Benjamin, 36, filling the role of head coach. The Knights are 7-1, and the school is buzzing about football for a change.

"The difference is that we are a team," said senior quarterback Patrick Mathieson, who has played at River Ridge since his freshman year. "Coach Benjamin has us believing in ourselves. He came from here and went on to do good things. We see that.

"We used to be looked at as this little school in New Port Richey that doesn't win much. But the Purple Posse is more than that."

The kids make all the hard work worth it

The former Bucs have taken their competitive nature and applied it to coaching. They have seen results, even if it hasn't been easy.

"It is hard work, every single day," Benjamin said. "It's a huge commitment. There are still times when I walk into the coach's office and it feels weird. I feel like I should still be in the locker room putting the pads on. But I never realized how much I would enjoy this. The hard work is all worth it when you see the reactions of the kids."

Alstott feels the same way.

"You can't get me off the field now," he said. "Coaching takes a lot of time, hard work and commitment. These three years have gone by in the blink of an eye. We're trying to take this program to the next level but we've got to keep our foot on the pedal."

Contact Rodney Page at Follow @RodneyHomeTeam.