It’s only two months before spring football practice begins around the state for high schools, and I thought it would be fun to give fans a little teaser to debate.
Covering high school football for three years, I got to know the area’s coaches pretty well. I have to say that I honestly like all of the ones I got to work with, and the county is blessed to have these men around.
But everyone likes lists, so using my experience and insight, here are my top 10 high school football coaches in Polk County. I can’t say there was a formula for this, though I considered on-field success to be very important. I had to get more subjective toward the bottom, factoring in potential a little bit and also understanding that some teams have had pretty tough district assignments the past couple of years.
Anyway, here’s my list. What’s yours?
Top 10 Football Coaches
1. Bill Castle, Lakeland: The only active football coach in Polk County who has won an FHSAA state title, and he happens to have six of them. The Dreadnaughts reached the No. 1 national ranking in the past decade, set the state record for consecutive wins, and sent dozens of players off to BCS programs. If I were listing the top coaches in the state, I’d be hard-pressed not to put Castle at No. 1.
2. Rod Shafer, Lake Wales: Shafer led the Highlanders to state runner-up finishes in 1993 and 1994, and they have reached the state semifinals three times since then. Coming so close without a title certainly can cause frustration among Highlanders fans, but Shafer has consistently produces winning teams and put his players in position to compete for state titles.
3. Keith DeMyer, Lake Gibson: In eight seasons with the Braves, DeMyer has produced six playoff teams and two state runner-up squads (2003-04). He’s tailored his team to fit the talent, whether it be QB Matt Grothe during the state title game runs or the tandem of RBs Remi Watson and Shawndell Artis in recent seasons. DeMyer also led Santa Fe to the postseason in the early 1990’s.
4. Charlie Tate, Winter Haven: The only current coach in the county to have led three teams to the postseason (Bartow, Lynn Haven Mosley, Winter Haven), Tate has never advanced beyond the regional finals. His teams are marked by very good defense, and he wears his emotions on his sleeves, evidenced by his comments running off the field last season after losing to Lakeland when he called the Dreadnaughts “the most unsportsmanlike team in the county.”
5. Jemalle Cornelius, Fort Meade: A former player of the year as quarterback at Fort Meade, Cornelius took over in 2009 after Mike Hayde stepped down. He has led the Miners to the state semifinals both seasons as head coach, and he’s still under 30 years old. The future is bright for Cornelius, who is a players’ coach but who also values the Fort Meade community and holds his players to high standards.
6. Richard Tate, Ridge Community: Tate, the brother of Winter Haven’s Charlie, is the only coach Ridge has known in its brief history. He led the Bolts to the postseason in 2008 and also directed the Kathleen Red Devils to the playoffs in 2003 and 2004. Tate has sent some incredibly talented athletes to BCS colleges, including RB Mike James to Miami, and LB Vince Williams and S Karlos Williams to FSU.
7. Jeff Schaum, Victory Christian: In two seasons, Schaum has directed the Storm to two district titles and took them to the state semis in 2010. His wide-open offense fits Victory’s athletic roster perfectly, and Schaum and his staff have succeeded with some shortcomings (i.e. no home field, no true football locker/weight room, small roster).
8. Irving Strickland, Kathleen: Strickland had a chance to join Castle as the only coaches with a state title during the 2009 season, but an ineligibility controversy led to forfeits and derailed what was the Red Devils’ best team in years. He led Kathleen back to the playoffs in 2010, giving him two postseason appearances in four years. He’s also one of my favorite coaches to talk to, has a great attitude and gives great quotes.
9. Matt Thompson, George Jenkins: Yes, I know that Thompson didn’t make the best of impressions with fans and other coaches around the county in his first season at Jenkins. He’s intense, he’s brash, and he lets his emotions get the best of him sometimes. But he has playoff experience from his short stint at Wildwood and injected some life into the Eagles program, nearly upsetting Lakeland and Lake Gibson and falling just short of a playoff berth. If he stays at Jenkins long enough, that program could be scary.
10. Ken Grantham, Auburndale: I’m ranking Grantham quite a bit off past success, as he led Mulberry to two playoff appearances before taking over at Auburndale in 2009. But since returning to his alma mater, Grantham has struggled. I still think he’s a good coach, and the ‘Hounds have been in an impossible district the past two years. But Grantham needs to right the ship soon.
Notable: It would be unfair of me not to recognize the only other coach with any kind of state title in the county, and that’s Mark Burdon of Landmark Christian. The Patriots won the Florida Christian Conference championship in 2007 and 2009 before moving to the Sunshine State Athletic Conference last season. I almost gave Burdon the nod at No. 10, but I’d like to see his team compete against tougher competition before moving him up that high . . . There has been quite a bit of turnover around the county in recent years, and the jury is still out on some newer coaches at top programs such as Brett Biggs at Bartow and Price Harris at Frostproof. I’m also very interested to see how Wayne Peace does at Lakeland Christian . . . The other county coaches with playoff experience are Lake Region’s Steve Reynolds and Haines City’s Pete Barber.