High School Sports

Manny Navarro: Roger Harriott proves right fit in first year at St. Thomas Aquinas

Jay Connolly was ready to retire last season.

But when he heard Roger Harriott, one of his favorite all-time students and players at St. Thomas Aquinas, was coming back to coach the football team last March, the beloved 63-year-old offensive line coach and 40-year veteran decided to come back “for one more” season.

“I taught Roger, coached Roger and Roger had a very special place in my heart ever since he was a student there,” Connolly said. “When Coach [George] Smith resigned and was out for two years because he had some health issues, we were having a tough time. The second year we lost a couple games in a row, which was unheard of. Roger, a senior on that team, kind of helped motivate the players. And we came back and made it all the way to the state semifinals.

“We lost to a really good Bradenton Southeast team that was loaded with Peter Warrick at quarterback and won the state title the following week over Daunte Culpepper’s team in the state final.”

But that season — and the way Harriott led it when Smith was away — always resonated with Connolly.

It’s why coaching his last game Friday night at the Citrus Bowl beside Harriott was always the perfect sendoff.

While one of Smith’s greatest assistants walks away from the game, Harriott, 39, will keep carrying the baton forward. Friday night’s 45-10 blowout of Viera in the Class 7A state championship game was the finish line for Connolly and the 2015 Raiders.

But it’s likely only the beginning of what could be a long, championship-rich path for Harriott, who once seemed destined to become a top-notch college assistant at Florida Atlantic before things changed last January.

After Rocco Casullo stepped down after winning his second state title in four years with the Raiders to “pursue other career opportunities,” Smith went hard after Harriott, who had stepped down from his post at FAU to take another job as vice president of a travel company and help his parents’ herbal medicine business in Jamaica.

Harriott insists his intentions when he left FAU were never to get right back into coaching. He was enjoying spending time with his eldest daughter, Nadia, a 16-year-old junior soccer star at Plantation American Heritage, who was going on recruiting visits and ultimately committed to Kentucky. But once he stepped on campus at Aquinas he said “my spirit moved and I knew I was supposed to be there.”

And its things like spirituality, respect, and responsibility that Harriott is all about. It’s why Smith wanted him to come back.

Somewhere along the way over the past few years, some of those things were lost at Aquinas, players said.

“I’ve never gained respect for someone as fast as I did for Coach Harriott,” kicker James McCourt said. “He came in and said, ‘No cussing.’ I’m not a big cusser, but it happens on the football field. That was a big change. But really it’s just the whole family atmosphere he brought in. Everybody is so comfortable with each other. You can count on the person right next to them, which is a little different than last year.”

Said Smith: “I just thought when things went down he was the right fit. What he’s done is he’s made a culture for our kids — spiritual aspect, do the right thing, have respect, be responsible, those type of things. He talks it every day. And they’re grasping it.”

It’s not often you see a team win a state championship and push the reset button. But that’s essentially what St. Thomas Aquinas did 12 months ago. Smith calls it a culture change.

What hasn’t changed? The winning.

The Raiders lost 13 players to season-ending injuries this season including five-star, All-American defensive end Nick Bosa, their starting left tackle, three linebackers, the top two running backs on the depth chart and never skipped a beat all season.

Of the 20 state championships Broward County has won in football, nine now belong to the Raiders.

Harriott, who built the football program of University School in Fort Lauderdale into a winner (78-15 in eight years) and a state champion in 2012, won his first ring as a sophomore on Aquinas’ first state title team in 1992.

Friday night he became only the eighth coach in state history to lead two different programs to state titles and the first in Broward County. Odds are he’s not going to be going anywhere soon. So, there’s a chance he could one day pass Smith’s record of 361 wins and six state titles.

A father of five, his youngest, Reede, is his only son. He’s in pre-kindergarten at American Heritage, where his wife is a teacher and their five children all go to school. Every morning, though, it’s Smith whom Harriott has breakfast with. He calls him a father figure.

“He gave a speech during halftime of a game against Dillard back in 1992, a pep talk about protecting your house,” Harriott said. “His passion and enthusiasm struck a chord with me.”

Harriott has wanted to be a football coach ever since. And now he has his dream job with a roster loaded for years to come.

“That would be presumptuous of me,” Harriott said of one day breaking Smith’s record for wins. “I’m just happy to be a part of his legacy right now.”

Manny Navarro: 305-376-3612, @Manny_Navarro

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