Largo High head football coach Rick Rodriguez talks with his team at the start of the 2012 season. He has the best career winning percentage in Pinellas County: 123-40
LARGO – The football players at Largo High found out Dec. 19 that theirs would be the last team Rick Rodriguez would coach.
“They were the first people to know,” Rodriguez said, explaining that he called the teenagers in during lunch. “It was a very emotional meeting for me, and also some of the kids. It was hard.”
The Packers won their ninth district title in a row this year, tied for the record with Plant High School in Tampa. They also lengthened their winning streak in district play to 43 games.
Rodriguez, who will be 61 next month, has the best career winning percentage in Pinellas County: 123-40. Since joining the Largo High staff in 2000, he’s never had a losing season. He was the fastest coach in the country to lead his team to 100 wins, pulling off the feat in 12 seasons.
But all good things come to an end.
“It’s time to step down … I’ve done what I could there,” Rodriguez said. “It’s time to let a young coach take over.”
Rodriguez will remain on staff at Largo, teaching physical education, weight training and health. He’ll be part of the team to search for his replacement as head coach.
“Everything’s set. We’ve got a good team coming back for next year, and we’ll find a good replacement,” he said.
Rodriguez said he’s been contemplating the move for a while, and wanted to finish with a great season.
“We had a lot of talented athletes (this year). But then we got a couple kids that got suspended that hurt our goals,” he said.rr
Still, the Packers made it to the first round of state playoffs. They lost in close game against Tampa’s Jefferson High School 25-17.
“All and all, it was a great season,” Rodriguez said. “We had some great games.”
In fact, Rodriguez said one of the top victories of his coaching career happened this season against Venice Oct. 18. The Packers were down 21-7 with four minutes left in the game. After a defensive stop, quarterback Donavan Hale made some big plays with some key passes that resulted in a touchdown.
Though the Packers started their final drive in the middle of the field, they made no progress on the first three downs. But then Reggie Campbell caught a long pass on fourth down and scored six.
As they lined up to kick the extra point, Venice drew an offsides penalty that moved the line of scrimmage closer to the goal line.
“So I decided to go for two,” Rodriguez said. “We had a shot.”
With no more time on the clock, the Packers scored to secure the 22-21 victory. The win was characteristic of his hard-working team, Rodriguez said. Most high school players, down by two touchdowns so late in the last quarter, would give up.
“Largo kids always fought to the last second,” Rodriguez said. “We won quite a few games with that, at the last second.”
Rodriguez, who has coached high school football for 37 years, said he was grateful that he got a chance to be head coach at Largo.
“I appreciate the administrators who have been tremendous. (Former principal) Barbara Thornton, (athletic directors) Glenn Koutney and Eric Allen took a chance on me and I am so grateful,” he stated.
Rodriguez was an assistant coach in Ripley, Tenn., for seven years and at Clearwater High for 16 years. He applied for head coach and was turned at several Pinellas schools before Largo gave him a chance.
“The type of kids you get at Largo are hard-working kids. They love the game of football,” Rodriguez said. “I knew it was going to be a special place for me.”
A solid work ethic makes for a good football team, he said. Rodriguez helped instill that in his players though his own example. The job of head coach is a full-time commitment, even during the off-season workouts, he said.
“I haven’t taken a vacation in 37 years. I made the kids go to work, and I was there with them in the summertime,” Rodriguez explained. “If you want to be head coach, you’ve got to be committed. You can’t be a part-timer. If you become a part-timer, the players become part timers. And then there’s no chemistry there. You’re done.”
Twice in Rodriguez’s career, Largo was one game away from the state finals, in 2007 and 2008. Those years, Packers had 13-1 and 12-2 seasons, respectively.
Three of Rodriguez’s players at Largo played in the NFL: Dexter McCluster, a 2006 graduate currently playing for the Kansas City Chiefs; Leonard Johnson, a 2008 graduate and current Tampa Bay Buccaneer cornerback, and Marcus Paschal, who first signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2007. Twenty-two of his players went on to play football at Division I colleges or universities, and 16 have played at Division II or III.
“Looking back, I’m most proud of helping players get to college,” Rodriguez stated. “Seeing kids graduate with a college degree – that’s my biggest accomplishment.”
Rodriguez earned his own bachelor’s degree in education from Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss.
He was named the Pinellas County Coach of the Year in 2005. In 2001, he was one of two coaches to represent Florida at the National Football League Summit.
Even shortly after the announcement, Rodriguez said he had a lot of acknowledgments and thanks from his players and the community through emails and Twitter.
“Not only is he an outstanding coach, but he has also served as a role model for young men during his tenure,” stated Largo High School principal Brad Finkbiner. “I am sure those who have played for him have learned valuable life lessons they can pass on to young people they encounter.”
Rodriguez wanted to thank the Largo community for their support.
“Mainly, the players and the parents and families. They sacrifice to play the greatest game in the world: football,” he said.
The lessons high school players learn in football last a lifetime, he said. Rodriguez and his coaches always taught good character, discipline and team commitment, to “help them become better men and good citizens,” he said.
“We really stress that as a team: if you work together as a unit, good things happen to them,” he said. “And we had a lot of good things happen to us.”
The school will be searching for a new head coach in early 2014, in time to take over before spring practices.