When South Dade plays the first football state final in school history Saturday night, one of the key figures will be a bow-legged, 62-year-old man who never played the sport, never served as a head coach and plans on retiring immediately following the game.
He is offensive coordinator Paul Bronis, the mastermind behind a Bucs attack that is averaging 27.4 points and is set to challenge defending Class 8A champion Apopka in its backyard — the Citrus Bowl in Orlando — at
7 p.m. in a battle of 13-1 teams.
“He’s got to be one of the best coaches in the country,” said Bucs wide receiver C.J. Worton, a Florida State recruit. “He knows what he’s talking about. Everything he says has a meaning to it.”
Bronis joked that if Worton hadn’t said nice things about him, he wouldn’t get the ball thrown to him Saturday.
But the truth is that Bronis, who has coached at South Dade for 35 years, has the respect of many. Bronis said he has had the opportunity to become a head coach more than once but turned down the offers because he likes his coordinator job.
“Paul is one of the most prepared coaches you will ever find,” said former South Dade athletic director Joel Furnari, who has known Bronis since they were 14-year-olds playing basketball at Coral Park High.
Bronis, a divorced father of three grown children, admits that he often watches game film until he falls asleep.
The result is that when his players arrive at practice on Monday, Bronis already has the upcoming opponent scouted down to every minute detail.
“We know everything [Apopka] is going to do because he’s breaking down film 24/7,” Worton said. “He knows [Apopka] so well that he could probably coach for them.”
Thankfully for the Bucs, that won’t happen. Bronis, a true-blue Buccaneer, will lead an experienced offense Saturday that starts eight seniors, two juniors and a sophomore.
The Bucs’ key players on offense are quarterback Kahlil Render (2,523 yards, 36 touchdowns, 12 interceptions), Worton (36 catches, 24.9 average, 12 TDs) and running back Johnnie Hankins (1,125 yards, 6.1 average, 7 TDs).
Bronis has called more runs (383) than passes (231) this season. But the Bucs are more successful in the air (2,551 yards, 11.0 per attempt) than on the ground (2,094 yards, 5.5 per carry).
In Apopka, the Bucs will face a team with a defense that appears vulnerable. Apopka has won 25 consecutive games against Florida schools. But during that span, Apopka has allowed eight teams to score more than 25 points, including two that scored more than 50.
Bronis said the front four is the strength of an Apopka defense that lacks great size — no starting defender bigger than 240 pounds and two of its three linebackers weigh 165 each.
“Their linemen are very difficult to single block,” Bronis said. “They are quick off the ball and use their hands well.”
Bronis, whose three children and three grandkids will be among his 20 family members traveling to Orlando for the game, obviously wants to win very badly.
Still, he’s keeping things in perspective.
“I’m trying to soak it all in and enjoy it,” he said. “But that’s easier said than done when you are watching film eight hours a day.”
Kyle Bronis, one of his two sons, said his father has tried to retire a couple times previously before returning to the sidelines. But Kyle and others are convinced this is the last time Bronis will coach on the varsity level.
Worton said Bronis will be sorely missed at South Dade’s practices, where the coach showed up every day wearing a big straw hat, sunglasses, a long-sleeve shirt, plaid shorts and white and navy-blue New Balance sneakers.
The kids will miss the way the veins in Bronis’ neck pop out when he gets mad and the funny way he runs routes as he teaches his receivers the way he wants things done.
“He is [the] No.1 guy on this team that we make fun of,” Worton said. “But at the end of the day, I feel like everyone loves Coach Bronis, and he loves all of us.”