The prep football coaching profession that Earl Garcia first encountered in the pet-rock and polyester era has evolved in much the same way as Lithia or Lutz, Palm Harbor or Port Richey.
Which is to say, the landscape has changed drastically from 50 years ago.
“This job is basically unrecognizable in 2023 as (opposed) to what it was when I broke in in 1974,” said Garcia, embarking on his 31st season as head coach at Hillsborough High.
Depending on the prism through which one peers, the myriad changes can be deemed as either positives or pitfalls. Few will decry the strategic innovations, heightened awareness of player safety and technological advances that connect players with colleges in only a few clicks.
But some of the more subtle changes have Garcia questioning his sport’s long-term viability. Among them: the makeup and continuity of coaching staffs.
A student-success coach during the day at Hillsborough, Garcia is one of six Terriers football coaches who work at the high school or in the school district. Five others are not employed in the school system.
“It is so important — so important — for coaches to be on campus to put eyes on their kids all day long, and for kids to know that they have a coach that they can go to all day long,” Garcia said. “There is so much more to life than football, and we have to be there for the kids, and it’s hard to be there when you’re not in the school building.”
Comparatively speaking, the Terriers’ ratio of faculty-to-non-faculty coaches is one of the healthier ones among bay area public schools. The industry has become inundated with volunteers and assistants who who don’t work in a classroom, or anywhere else in the school.
Some are former pros. Some are youth-league or 7-on-7 coaches. Others may be well-meaning private business owners with a football background.
“I call them drive-up coaches,” former longtime Robinson High coach Mike DePue said. “And the drive-up coaches have been a valuable source over the years, but they’ve been a supplement. And now they seem to be the mainstay of a staff as opposed to a supplement.”
At Armwood High, only four of the Hawks’ 13 coaches — including head coach Evan Davis — work at the school. At Seminole High in Pinellas County, head coach Auggie Sanchez and two assistants work at the school, but five are not employed in the school system. At Springstead High, three of veteran coach Mike Garofano’s six assistants work off-campus.
At Gulf High in New Port Richey, only one of head coach Sean Eperjesi’s 12 assistants works at the school, and that one is a long-term substitute. DePue, for whom Eperjesi played at Robinson, is a Bucs volunteer assistant.
“There’s value to the coach being on campus, there really is,” said Davis, a social studies teacher at Armwood. “Because he’s a part of the community, he’s a part of (the faculty), he’s part of those kids. Building those relationships is key, not just driving up and coaching those kids and then driving away.”
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Familiarity breeds cohesion
The composition of local prep coaching staffs has come under greater scrutiny since a recent practice altercation at Sunlake High drew national attention. Offensive coordinator Connor Ferst, a long-term substitute in Pasco County, said he was assaulted by another coach (who wasn’t a full-time employee of the school system) when an offense versus defense drill became heated.
The coach whom Ferst has accused of attacking him no longer is associated with the school district in any capacity, and the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office said charges are forthcoming as a result of the incident. Additionally, Sunlake first-year head coach B.J. Hall was dismissed late last week.
“The best teams I’ve had, my staffs were the closest,” Garcia said. “I’ve had coaches that absolutely disliked each other, but you can’t do that. You have to address everything in the coaches’ office. You can’t discipline (coaches) in front of the kids, much less a fistfight. What the hell is that?”
That cohesion, Garcia suggested, starts with coaches being around their players — and each other — throughout the school day.
“During the day, I hang out with the coaches,” Garcia said. “When we have spare time and I’m at lunch duty, my coaches come and hang out with me instead of going to eat lunch. We talk about the video we just watched. We talk about a hot spot in terms of a kid.”
Still, several factors are forcing head coaches to find help outside the school system.
Perhaps the biggest: money. The teachers flocking to the private sector in search of better pay include many coaches, who still earn a pittance compared to their coaching peers in states such as Texas, Alabama and Georgia. Head football coaches in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties earn annual stipends ranging from $3,736 to $4,498, depending on the school district.
The stipends for assistants are even lower. “Two of my coaches decided to not be in the school system anymore and go work in the private sector,” Davis said. “And I can’t blame them. Less headache, more money, year-round pay instead of just 10 months.”
Cleared, but not necessarily qualified
Prospective coaches not already employed by the school system must fulfill myriad prerequisites before joining a local high school coaching staff. In Pasco County, they include a Level-2 background check, fingerprinting, CPR certification and yearly courses (heat illness, concussion, sudden cardiac arrest) required by the Florida High School Athletic Association.
The requirements are similar in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. While the requirements for volunteer coaches vary slightly in each area, all must submit to a background check, and cannot oversee a practice or conditioning session without a paid school district employee (head coach or paid assistant) present.
But just because someone is cleared to coach doesn’t necessarily mean they’re qualified, veteran prep coaches say.
For coaches who work each day in a classroom, their livelihood hinges on a level of decorum that involves treating students — and other adults — in a professional manner. Coaches not employed by the school system may not feel that same level of accountability.
“I think the level of responsibility is something people don’t think about,” said Eperjesi, a physical education teacher at Gulf.
“If you’re, say, an outside business owner (who coaches) and you come in and make a mistake on campus, you just lose a $1,500 stipend. But me, if I mess up I lose a career. So there’s a lot more to risk being on campus than there is off campus to some degree.”
But as off-campus coaches grow more pervasive in the industry, that collective level of accountability may diminish.
And the climate may become more conducive to incidents such as the one at Sunlake.
“It’s a lost art, man,” Davis said. “And that’s the difference between us and Texas and Georgia — the commitment to people being on campus and being around kids on a daily basis as a program.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.