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AFM Magazine – Smith Steps Down at Aquinas

by: Dallas Jackson
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Legendary coach had a career 361-66 record.

It is a season of change for national power Ft. Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas. Barely over a month removed from its sixth state title and subsequent No. 2 national finish in the RivalsHigh 100 and just two weeks after officially being realigned into District 15 of the newly-formed Class 7A, the Raiders have announced the team will enter the 2011 football season with a new head coach.

    At a press conference that was expected to be an announcement of the next season’s football schedule, the Raiders instead announced a change at the top. In a stunning move, legendary coach George Smith abruptly decided to step down from his position as the head coach of the Raiders.

    “I talked to him a week ago Sunday and we laughed like we always do, but he didn’t really mention it. I had heard at the state championship game that this might be the end of it,” said Kevin Sullivan, head coach of Jacksonville Atlantic Coast, who played and coached with Smith at Aquinas. “He was tough, but he was fair. It’s a sad day for Raider Nation. He’s done a lot for the kids. Everyone talks about the state championship runs, but there were a group of kids 10-15 years earlier that really laid the foundation for that program. He takes a lot of pride in those early years. He coached the kids of players now.”

    The news of Smith’s retirement spread quickly. “George Smith was one of the best high school coaches in the country year in and year out, and the consistency he brought to that program was remarkable,” National Recruiting Analyst Mike Farrell said. “St. Thomas Aquinas was always one of the top programs in the most talent-rich state in the country and that speaks to his ability to coach up and develop young men. If anyone is putting together a top 25 of all time high school head coaches, his name has to be considered for sure.”

    Smith had been the coach at the school for all but three seasons since 1975 and amassed a record of 361-66 with six state titles, seven runner-ups and a 2008 RivalsHigh national championship. His win total was second in Florida, behind Jacksonville Bolles coach Corky Rogers. “Looking at what he’s done - that’s about as impressive as it gets,” Rogers said. “He’s built a wonderful program and he’s done it for a long time and we certainly respect all that he’s accomplished.”

    Rogers, along with Smith, Joe Kinnan (Bradenton Manatee) Paul Maechtle (Bradenton Southeast) and Bill Castle (Lakeland High) are the five winningest coaches in Florida history and all have been coaching for more than 40 years. “We’re all just one doctor’s appointment away from having our careers come to an end,” Rogers said. “We all are very thankful for being given the time we’ve been given. For us to have had the success we’ve had, we are all blessed.” 

    The Drednaughts have met the Raiders multiple times over the years, including five times in the state championship game. “We’ve had some great games over the years and we’ve become great friends,” Castle said. “I will miss him and wish him well. He definitely, in my opinion, has the best program in the state of Florida.”

    And despite winning four of those five championship game meetings over Smith, Castle said his best memory isn’t one of those games. “People always remember the state championship game in 2006 (a double-overtime victory for Lakeland),” Castle said. “But to me, our greatest game was the 1998 quarterfinal game down there. Of course, he could say the same about the year before when they beat us in our place. “I feel a little empty with him getting out. There are not a lot of us old guys left.”

    St. Thomas Aquinas principal Tina Jones expressed her sentiment for Smith in a press release issued by the school Monday afternoon. “George Smith has been an outstanding mentor and coach to our young people,” she said. “While it is sad to see this football giant move off the field, we are excited about the joy and benefits so many more athletes will continue to receive.”

    Smith will remain with the program as the athletic director while assistant athletic director and defensive coordinator Rocco Casullo will rise to the role of head coach. Casullo has been a teacher at the school for 10 years, the last four of which he also served as the defensive coordinator. In Casullo’s time as the defensive coordinator, the Raiders have yielded just 9.24 points per game and won 56 of its 58 games.

    As recently as a month ago, Casullo was one of the eight semifinalists for the head coaching position at Vero Beach High. The position was filled by Larry Jankowski and Casullo was not among the final four candidates, but the situation fueled speculation among some that Smith decided to step aside to make sure the program could keep his talented understudy.

    In the last four recruiting classes, the Raiders have sent 34 players to Division I FBS level schools on football scholarships. With a potential class of six more in 2011, the on-field product should be up to the standards that have become the expectation at the prestigious program.

    The consistency of the program is something that was not lost on college recruiters, according to Farrell. “Coach Smith not only coached kids up and got the most out of their talent but he also developed players of high character and academic integrity on a consistent basis,” Farrell said. “Colleges don’t keep coming back to a high school program again and again, year after year if they don’t respect the program, believe in the head coach as a teacher of values and skill and if he doesn’t run a great program.

    ”He has left huge shoes to fill.”


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