AFM RSS Feed Follow Us on Twitter       

   User Name    Password 
      Password Help

Article Categories

AFM Magazine

AFM Magazine

The Bulldogs Bark

Florida's Bolles School
by: Gene Frenette
Florida Times-Union
© More from this issue

Click for Printer Friendly Version          

Ten years ago, Corky Rogers found himself at a crossroad for the first time in his illustrious coaching career. He faced a decision that would ultimately have implications on two of Jacksonville's most storied high school football programs. And there was no way he could please everybody.

Rogers, then 45, was wrestling whether to leave his alma mater, Lee High School, after 17 successful seasons and take a job at The Bolles School. What made the decision so difficult was Rogers spent nearly half his life at Lee as a player or coach. And Bolles, a private school that enrolls many kids of wealthy parents, was often perceived by proponents of the public-school system as the enemy.

Wayne Belger, Rogers' 12-year assistant at Lee and one of his closest friends, felt as awkward as anybody about the situation, but felt they had to make the break. Like Rogers, he felt the support forfootball at Lee, as with many Jacksonville public schools, had diminished over the years among fans and administration.

"I thought it was time for us to go,'' said Belger. "I thought weneeded a change of atmosphere. The emphasis was getting off athletics. It just didn't seem as much fun. Maybe we were getting stale.''

Some might argue that point, but there's no debating what Rogersand his coaching staff have done for Bolles since arriving in the spring of 1989. They transformed a good program into a great one.

Though the Bulldogs had won their only state championship in 1986 under Bill Borg, they missed the playoffs the following two years. The program seemed in genuine need of a fresh start just as Rogers did. Together, the merger of a blue-collar coach from Jacksonville's west side and the pristine school on Jacksonville's south side has produced the most successful prep football program in Florida in the 1990s.

Bolles has won four state titles during this decade, including itsthird perfect season under Rogers in '98 when the Bulldogs knocked off favored Pahokee and its Parade All-American quarterback, Anquan Boldin, 29-14 in the Class 3A finals.

Rogers' tenure at Bolles has produced a phenomenal won-loss record of 115-17, an .871 winning percentage. It has also pushed the Bulldogs' program into the elite class in one of the nation's most competitive football states. Bolles has now won more playoff games (35) than any school in Florida and 27 of those victories have come this decade.

Any apprehension that Rogers felt over leaving his alma mater and a multitude of old friends has subsided with time. Collecting state championship trophies will do that.

"Bolles had been successful before, so I felt like they knew howto win,'' Rogers said. "They had good coaches and a good, solid program. If I could bring anything, it's what it would take to play against teams with more athletes and what it took physically to do that. I think that might have rubbed off a little bit.''

Those closest to the Bolles program believe the biggest differencein the Bulldogs from the 1980s to now is Rogers' insistence on a year-round weight program. The conversion to a Wing-T offense was also a factor, but not as much as the players understanding that championships are won in the weight room as well as on the field.

"The first day Corky was introduced to the players in the weightroom, he got down and bench-pressed more weight than any of them did,'' said Frank Callihan, the team's play-by-play announcer since 1975. "Wayne Belger did the same thing. That got the kids' attention. They won't tolerate the players not fulfilling their weight-room obligations.

"I think work is it. He's gotten the players to out-work everybody. Our kids are pretty motivated grade-wise. You can get them to do it in the classroom, but I don't think that ever carried over to the athletic field before Corky got there.''

At no time was Rogers' ability to get the most out of his playersmore evident than last season. Unlike his 1995 state championship team and '96 state runner-up, which produced nine players who signed with Division I-A schools, the '98 team had few college prospects.

"In all my years, this was Bolles' greatest team because they hadno stars,'' Callihan said. "It just seemed like the kids willed themselves to be a championship team.''

The Bulldogs' most productive player, fullback Matt Larmoyeux,intends to walk on at Alabama. Only tailback Eugene Reese, who is bound for Air Force, received a scholarship to a I-A school.

"We didn't have the big-time athletes,'' Belger said. "Nobodythought we could beat Pahokee except ourselves.''

"I think back and this is my fondest moment,'' Rogers said lastDecember after winning the Class 3A title at the University of Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Rogers' 27-year coaching career, which has made him the second-winningest active coach in Florida with a lifetime mark of 258-60-1, is littered with great memories. A then-state record 10 consecutive district titles (1977-86) at Lee. Coaching over 30 Division I-A scholarship players, including LeRoy Butler, who went on to become All-America at Florida State and is a four-time All-Pro safety with theGreen Bay Packers.

But he has also endured his share of lows, the greatest being thedeath of his father, Charles, as his 1980 Lee team was making its runtoward a state title. The Generals fell short that year in the state semifinals when an offside penalty on Gainesville's 1-yard line in the closing minutes prevented the winning touchdown.

Rogers' teams missed out on three state crowns (1980, '81 and '96) during seasons when his starting quarterback got injured in theplayoffs. His '84 Lee team also lost a triple overtime playoff game toPensacola Escambia, the eventual state champion, in which Emmitt Smith was held under 100 yards for the only time in his high school career. It still bothers Rogers that he never led his alma mater to a state title.

"It certainly is one of the real disappointments in my career,'' he said. "We had the players to do it. We just didn't get it done and I'm the one that must answer for that. But I do think it was a growing period in my life where I learned what it takes. And maybe not winning one kept me that much more hungry when we came over to Bolles.

Ironically, Rogers' most talented team at Bolles fell two points short of perfection in a 14-13 state championship loss to Bartow in 1996. Ranked No. 1 in the country by USA Today, the Bulldogs lost their starting guard to an injury on the opening kickoff, then had the game's entire complexion change when quarterback/cornerback Chris Reier fractured his ankle on the first series.

Rogers described the bizarre circumstances afterwards "like being in a game of five-card stud with only three cards.''

The Bulldogs don't always play with a full deck, but somehow, Rogers and his staff manage to keep winning no matter what they might have for a hand. Part of the reason is continuity. Only three assistants have left the Bolles program during Rogers' time, and two of them have since returned.

But the key component to Bolles' success might not be the blue-chip college prospects, but Rogers' ability to bring out the most out of players with no chance of ever playing a down of college ball.

"As coaches, we don't do a lot to make Division I football players, they pretty much make themselves,'' said Rogers. "Where we come in is to have more influence on the guy who struggles just to be competitive.''

With 12 returning starters, Bolles figures to be more than competitive again next season. The Bulldogs will be pursuing their sixthstate title, which would tie another Jacksonville private school - University Christian - for the most state crowns.

The question is how much longer Rogers, 55, will want to keep doing the daily grind of monitoring weight-room workouts and stay personally motivated to add to his own legacy.

"I'm sure there's going to be a time when they'll ask me to leave or I'll want to leave,'' Rogers said. "But it's like when I played softball and things were going good. I didn't want to know my batting average. I just wanted to keep doing what I was doing.''

For 10 years, Rogers has done it as well at The Bolles School as any prep football coach has done it anywhere. Time, and winning, has made the heartbreak of leaving his alma mater easier to live with.

"Any time you change any job, there's always that reservation,'' said Rogers. "But I feel confident that there's a certain way to coach and I truly believe it works with all types of people. It's just doing things the right way. It's not rocket science. It's having a work ethic and being consistent.''

Looking for Games

As with most private-school football programs, The Bolles School has found that success can open some doors and close others. One of the biggest obstacles of being a perennial power is finding opponents to fill out a schedule.

While there are nearly 30 high schools with football programs in the Jacksonville area, few have consented to play the Bulldogs unless mandated by virtue of being in the same classification and district.

"I don't know what their reason is for not wanting to play,'' said Bolles coach Corky Rogers. "I'm not one to dwell on it. We seem to be all right doing it (scheduling) our way.''

In fact, Bolles' dominance in the 1990s has often left the school scrambling to get 10 regular-season games because area public schools won't play them either out of fear of getting beat or worse, the fear that their top players will want to transfer there.

Except for Stanton Prep, which just revitalized its football program last year after an 18-year absence, no Jacksonville public school has played Bolles in a non-district, regular-season game since Rogers took over the program.

"Part of it stems from the notion that Bolles is a good school and they have a fear of losing players to them,'' said Dan Disch, the head coach at Jacksonville White High School, a Class 5A public school. "Public schools battle like heck for facilities and money. It's tough to compete financially and academically with what Bolles has got.

"So as a coach, you're going to be awfully hesitant to show your players that campus. I think what bothers coaches is the feeling that a lot of Bolles players are there on scholarship. People see it as an uneven playing field and they don't want to help Bolles by playing them.

"I hope it gets to the point where we do play, but they've never called us looking for a game and we've never called them.''

The tendency of area public schools to avoid Bolles, which moves down to Class 2A in 1999 after being either 4A or 3A since 1991, has forced the Bulldogs to do some serious traveling to find games.

In 10 seasons under Rogers, the team has had to make trips of 200-plus miles on several occasions to play opponents, sometimes without getting a home game in return the following season. To play a full schedule, the Bulldogs have journeyed to Florida cities like Key West, Fort Pierce, Arcadia and Tampa. In 1996, Bolles went out-of-state to Atlanta to play Marist, a perennial power.

Next season, the Bulldogs will go more out of their way than ever to get a 10th game. They'll bus to Nashville, Tenn. to play state champion Montgomery Bell School.

"If you can't drive across town to play, you got to do what you got to do,'' Rogers said. ''It'll makes us a stronger team in the long run.''


AFM Videos Streaming Memberships Now Available Digital Download - 304 Pages of Football Forms for the Winning Coach


Copyright 2023,
All Rights Reserved