This article appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on Feb. 15, 2009.
By JOEY KNIGHT
NEW PORT RICHEY — The most lauded coaching career in Gulf High history began in a Port Tampa parking lot.
Tampa native Jerry Young, 25 years old and fresh out of Cameron University in Lawton, Okla., was headed inside Robinson High for a job interview. Before reaching the front door, he was met by Knights football assistant Jim Riser, a golfing buddy.
Riser had just been hired as coach at Gulf. He asked Young if he’d like to join him at the New Port Richey school as an assistant and physical education teacher.
Young accepted on the spot. The year was 1974.
He has been at Gulf ever since.
“I was offered some football jobs by a couple of other people,” Young said. “But it’s weird, I’m just old-school. Gulf High made a commitment to me in (’74) and I just felt like I’m honoring their commitment. They’ve been very good to me.”
When the school year ends, so will Young’s tenure at Gulf, which has outlasted seven principals. The eighth, current principal Steve Knobl, was 2 when Young was hired.
He has spent 29 of those years coaching football (four as head coach), 26 coaching baseball (20 as head coach) and four coaching girls golf. He is the only current coach in Pasco County to have remained at the same school for 35 years.
“All he talks about is Gulf High,” said Buccaneers baseball coach Shaun Wiemer, a 1987 GHS graduate who played baseball and football for Young. “He’s just 100 percent Gulf High Buccaneer.”
Thursday night at Gulf’s ballpark, between games of a preseason tournament, Wiemer presided over a ceremony in which Young’s No. 10 baseball jersey was retired and presented to him in a frame. Wiemer said it will hang in the school’s front office.
Longtime coaching colleagues showed up, as did county and school administrators, family members and some of Young’s former players. Bobby Freeman, who played on Young’s first Bucs baseball team, flew in from Texas.
As the skies darkened and fog rolled in from the south, it was hard to determine which was more of a Gulf High fixture: the massive white water tower looming beyond the northwest corner of campus, or Jerry Wayne Young.
“Jerry’s just a very loyal-type person,” said Mark Cotney, an original Tampa Bay Buccaneer and Young’s college roommate. “Gulf is where his heart’s at.”
• • •
The waitress at St. Angelo’s, a small Italian place just a few blocks south of Gulf High, greets Young as “Coach” as he enters. Over a bowl of soup, he spends the next 45 minutes talking about philosophy, family, influences and his imminent retirement.
A 1968 Chamberlain High graduate, Young, 59, played quarterback and third base for the Chiefs in north Tampa. He spent his sophomore year backing up a hotshot upperclassman named Steve Garvey, who would go on to become a 10-time all-star in the major leagues.
To this day, he still speaks regularly to Charlie Lyle, his baseball and football coach at Chamberlain, and the most important male in his life next to his 88-year-old dad.
“He taught me about the importance of not just playing sports. You had to make grades, be a good person,” said Young, who is spending his final school year as a football and baseball assistant. “I get kidded a lot by the kids, being old-school. … Times have changed, I’m not.
“I’m coaching the way I coached in 1968.”
That style is accompanied by a gruff exterior that many say shrouds a heart of pure pudding. During his head coaching tenures in football (1978-81) and baseball (1977-96), Young led with a passion mostly unbridled and rules that mostly were unwavering.
You ran if you missed practice or class. Those who missed class the day of a game didn’t play. And Lord help you if you got in trouble during school.
The on-field results were mixed. Gulf, which never even reached the state football playoffs until 2006, won only 12 games in Young’s four seasons, finishing 0-10 his first year. But he won more than 300 as baseball coach before an arthritic condition in his right hand — he still can’t make a fist with it — forced him to step down.
“What always struck me was the pride he had in Gulf football,” said 1983 Gulf graduate George Kotis, now football coach at Tarpon Springs High.
“He had a way of making kids see he was highly interested in what he was doing. There were just times where his emotions would be way up there. I coach that way myself sort of, but it’s all sincere, legit stuff. But that’s what I got from Coach Young.”
Others got scholarships. Mike Freeman, a 1984 graduate who played baseball but excelled in basketball, said he struggled to get a sniff from local colleges. When he told Young his plight, the coach called his alma mater.
Within days, Freeman had a basketball scholarship to Cameron.
“I don’t know how to say it, but he’s just not what he appears,” said Freeman, who now owns a local insurance company. “He comes off as being very hard and tough, at least when I was playing, but he lets you know in small ways you were special to him.”
Those who doubt that compassion need only look at the reason he won’t coach again.
And the reason he initially walked away from the sidelines.
• • •
Despite three consecutive 4-6 seasons, Young had no intention of stepping down as football coach. His initial goal, in fact, was to coach 35 years in both football and baseball.
That was until Brandon, the oldest of Young’s two boys, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy in the early 1980s. Today, Brandon is a produce manager at a local Publix whose condition is undetectable aside from a mild limp.
But at the time of his diagnosis, Young said his decision to walk away was a no-brainer.
“He had to go through a lot of therapy,” Young said. “He went through a couple of experimental surgeries that didn’t work. So that’s why I quit.”
More than a quarter-century later, there’s an ironic tinge to Young’s retirement. Whereas he once walked away to spend more time with his own kid, he now says he won’t coach again because he won’t be able to spend more time at school. Though many contemporaries are still coaching even though they’ve retired as teachers, Young insists he won’t follow suit.
“I always said if I couldn’t be around the kids all day I don’t want to do it,” Young said. “I don’t want to be the coach that comes back at 2 o’clock and all of the sudden, be in their lives.”
Instead, he’ll spend time with second wife Linda, who provided him two stepchildren, and his grandsons, ages 10 and 18 months. A left-handed golfer with a 3-handicap who once aspired to make the PGA’s Senior Tour, he’ll also continue indulging that passion.
But Wiemer, for one, can’t fathom the notion Young never will coach again.
The thought of a Gulf High without Jerry Young is hard enough to conceive.
“That’s my life,” Young said. “Think about it, I’m 59. Over half my life’s been at Gulf High School.”