ST. PETERSBURG — For more than a decade, Al Bennett watched nearly every athletic event at St. Petersburg High School, often racing from the gymnasium to the football field to catch different games on the same night.
It was more than just his duty as the school's principal.
It was a passion.
After all, Bennett, 55, played basketball for the Green Devils for four years (1976-80) and tennis for one (1979).
A staunch supporter of athletics, Bennett understood the vital role they played in boosting school morale, in building friendships and in testing students beyond the classroom.
After 11 years as St. Petersburg's principal, Bennett was looking for a job where he could apply his knowledge of athletics even more. Bennett found it three months ago when he was hired to become Pinellas County's athletic director.
He replaces Nick Grasso, the former Clearwater principal who retired after 11 years as the county AD.
"At first I had to really think about whether I wanted to go after it," Bennett said. "My son, Jake, is a senior at St. Petersburg this year so it made sense to stay. But I thought the job would really fill my skill-set and I didn't know if the job would be open again before I retire."
Hired in May, Bennett did not officially take over his new role until July.
His first tasks were the usual assortment of eligibility issues that arise at the start of the new school year.
"I had the Florida High School Athletic Association on speed dial for quite a while," Bennett said. "I just wanted to make sure we were on the same page with whatever ruling we had on something."
Bennett also relied on the help of Grasso and leaned on athletic directors in other counties, such as Pasco's Matt Wicks, for advice.
"Al and I have talked about a dozen times since he took the job," Wicks said. "We're in neighboring counties, so I want to help in any way I can. Plus, I think it helps him because I took over last year and we're both fairly new to this. We can actually learn from each other."
Bennett still watches plenty of games, albeit on a much larger scale. Instead of making the rounds at one school, he is doing it from one stretch of the county to the other.
Two weeks ago, he went to three preseason football games, hitting the north, central and south parts of the county. Bennett looked for things as if he still were principal, checking to see if ambulances were present and whether the scoreboard was functioning.
The first real test came last week when a band of thunderstorms rolled through the bay area, threatening to postpone or cancel the opening week of high school football. Bennett made it to two games before heading home. After that, he was on the phone with coaches, athletic directors and the FHSAA.
"I wanted to make sure if there were postponements we were able to schedule them," Bennett said. "That's even more important with the new points system for the playoffs in football."
Fortunately, only one game was canceled among the 16 public high schools in the county.
Bennett said he plans to stay in his new post — and attend as many games as possible — until he retires.
"I probably have another five or six years," Bennett said. "This is right where I want to be."