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Legendary Hillsborough County prep football coach Billy Turner dies

The winningest football coach in Hillsborough County history, Billy Turner died Friday morning after a half-decade bout with cancer. He was 79. (Times file)
Published Jun. 10, 2017

TAMPA — For as long as anyone can remember, coach Billy Turner and his wife, Lucy, would open the door to their home near Lake Magdalene every Sunday afternoon and watch family drift in by the generation.

Kids, grandchildren and great-grandkids would gather for yellow rice, black beans, boliche and bonding. You could set church bells by the Turner dinner bell. For Billy Barnes Turner, it was part of a patriarchal routine.

Sundays with the biological brood, Friday nights with the surrogates. In one of the most storied local high school coaching careers ever, Mr. Turner also evolved into a de facto dad for generations of football players, and teenagers in general.

The winningest football coach in Hillsborough County history, Mr. Turner died Friday morning after a valiant, half-decade bout with cancer. He was 79.

"There's just not another Billy Turner," said former longtime Chamberlain boys basketball coach Doug Aplin, who worked with Mr. Turner for 30 years. "He was just such a kind, caring person. It didn't matter: Every sport, every kid, whether they played sports or not, he cared about."

Scott Purks | Special to the Times

Billy Turner cuts a loving glance toward wife Lucy during an honorary ceremony for Turner last November at Chamberlain High.

In 38 seasons, including two stops at Hillsborough High preceding a 30-year run at Chamberlain, Mr. Turner amassed 254 victories. Chamberlain's field is named in his honor. So is the Coach of the Year award presented annually by the National Football Foundation's Tampa chapter.

"Billy's one of those guys who was a mentor to us all," former Robinson coach Mike DePue said.

"I know for a fact he's one of the guys who made a couple of calls (in 2002) and said, 'This guy needs to be the coach at Robinson High.' … He's one of those guys who did that for me, and not even me asking."

LEGEND: Tampa football coach Billy Turner feted by hundreds

A graduate of Auburndale High and three-sport star at the University of Tampa, Mr. Turner's head coaching career began at Hillsborough High in 1968 and ended 40 years later at Chamberlain.

Among his pupils during that span were Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden, veteran NFL nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley and former FSU tailback James Wilder Jr. Bunkley was the cornerstone of the '01 Chiefs team that fell to Naples, 21-17, in the Class 5A final. It was Mr. Turner's only appearance in a state title game.

His coaching tree reads like a redwood. Among his subordinates through the years was current Hillsborough High coach Earl Garcia, whose 236 career wins rank second in county history behind Mr. Turner.

Times file

Billy Turner's head coaching career began at Hillsborough High in 1968 and ended 40 years later at Chamberlain.

Garcia first met Mr. Turner as a fourth-grader at Tampa's Mitchell Elementary, where Mr. Turner was his physical education coach. Even at 10, Garcia was so enamored with his future boss, he bought him a shaving kit as a Christmas gift.

"I don't care if I catch him or not in terms of wins," said Garcia, a 20-something defensive coordinator for Mr. Turner at Hillsborough in the late 1970s. "I'll never be the guy that Billy was."

Offensively innovative with an uncanny awareness of what all 22 players on the field were doing at a given moment, Mr. Turner was renowned — and occasionally reviled — for finding an opponent's weakness and exploiting it repeatedly. His competitive streak — nor passion for the game — seemed to dissipate with age.

Garcia remembers Mr. Turner firing him at halftime of Garcia's first game as Terriers defensive coordinator, a 33-25 loss to King in the '77 season opener, only to renege the next day.

Times file

Billy Turner, in a 1981 game against Hillsborough, talking to his offensive linemen on the sideline.

The summer before his final season, he had a pacemaker installed, then spent that autumn leading his final Chiefs team to an 11-2 record and a berth in the Class 5A region finals. It was Chamberlain's 10th consecutive playoff appearance.

"There's times when I've thought to myself, 'I really don't need this. I can retire now,'" said Garcia, 64. "And I've thought to myself, 'Hell, Billy could do it.' He gave me just the competitive fight to keep going. That happens still to this day on a regular basis."

Unable to detach himself completely from the game, Mr. Turner still was barking advice via headset from a pressbox down to son Brian — Sickles' former coach — as recently as two autumns ago.

Last November, Turner appeared at a reception in his honor at Chamberlain High's auditorium, which drew hundreds. Last June, he was presented a Sports Community Hero award at the Tampa Bay Sports Commission's annual Sneaker Soiree.

Amy Scherzer | Times

Billy Turner was named the 2016 Community Hero at the Sneaker Soiree last June hosted by the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. "I'm in the fourth quarter, and I'm the underdog," said Turner at the time, "but I don't give up easily. I may have to go overtime on this thing, but we'll beat it."

"His kids loved playing for him, and I thought that was so cool to see kids so happy to be around their coach," said former Armwood High coach Sean Callahan, who made a point to befriend Mr. Turner upon moving to the area from New England in 1980.

"He was fiery, yet he could be very humble and sweet. He got the most out of his kids, and those are the kinds of qualities that I like to think that I embody, that kids like to be around me and play hard for me. Those are the things I saw in Billy Turner."

Though strategically modern until the end, Mr. Turner allowed some of his philosophies to remain shamelessly embedded in yesteryear. By many accounts, he detested the idea of players specializing in a single sport, and once said he wasn't crazy about high-profile prep games being broadcast on national TV.

"He'd share athletes," Aplin said.

"If I had a summer-league game and (the football team) had 7-on-7, he'd tell the kids, 'If you want to go play summer-league basketball don't worry about 7-on-7,' and that's very rare from what I understood from other basketball coaches. He just cared about all kids, not just football guys. It's hard to really describe unless you'd been around him and watched him."

Times file

Billy Turner is surrounded by granddaughters at the Krewe of Sant' Yago 35th annual Debutante Ball in 2007.

A member of the UT Hall of Fame, Mr. Turner is survived by Lucy, whom he began dating when both were UT students; eight children, 20 grandchildren and six great-grandkids.

Not to mention those hundreds — perhaps thousands — of surrogates.

"Billy was a great husband, a great father and a great football coach," Garcia said. "What else is there in what we do?"

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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