When he was a young, up-and-coming coach at Miami Northwestern, Roland Smith used to hear the criticism of South Florida coaches all the time.
And it made him mad.
“For so long we’ve been knocked around,” Smith said. “People talking about bad coaching, how we here in Dade and Broward [counties] just have athletes.”
Maybe it’s about time the critics put that to rest.
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On Saturday afternoon, the guys who couldn’t coach, the guys who rode the magical backfield tandem of Dalvin Cook and Joseph Yearby to back-to-back state titles in 2012 and 2013, won a third in a row without them.
In case you missed it, this was Central’s fifth trip to the Citrus Bowl in a row, too, and its fourth state title during that span.
How about a little respect? They have earned it.
Saturday’s 24-10 victory over Seffner Armwood wasn’t as easy as last year’s 52-7 romp when Cook, Mr. Florida Football and now a young star at Florida State, ripped the Hawks to shreds. But it was won because the men in charge at Central never lost their cool even though their team was flagged a lot more than the other team.
Armwood, boasting one of the best defenses in the state and led by five-star recruit Byron Cowart, had a 10-7 lead in the third quarter. In the old days, a Dade team in this spot might fold under the pressure, self-destruct by taking too many chances.
Not Central. The Rockets have learned how to win. They punted when they had to. They believed in their defense. And they were patient on offense — waiting for the right time to pounce.
And they did. Saturday’s state championship wasn’t won because Anthony Jones, an FIU commitment who finished with 199 yards and three touchdowns, was the best athlete on the field. It wasn’t won because Central’s defense had four sacks, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
It was won with years of work — a vision to turn Dade County powers not just into recruiting hotbeds, but also championship programs.
They have done it by beefing up the regular-season schedule — not just traveling to places such as Ohio, New Jersey, Georgia and Texas, but winning there too. “It also took some help from the community,” Central alumni president D.C. Clark said Saturday as the Rockets fans shouted “Three-peat!” from the stands.
“Our community was disjointed,” Clark continued. “Parents started getting involved, alumni started coming back to assist. I also can’t dismiss we have the greatest coaching staff in the state of Florida.
“Everybody is talking about how they are Northwestern’s former coaches — well, you should have hired them back. We had the foresight to hire them when they were available. We don’t want to jinx ourselves and call it a dynasty. But we’ve got a hell of a program.”
Central hasn’t done it alone. Miami Booker T. Washington has been right there. Both programs have gone through coaching changes, and neither one has skipped a beat. And they respect each other like few others do.
“They push us so hard, we know we have to amp our game up every year,” Clark said. “We used to own them. They were the junior league, but now they’ve proven beyond a shadow of a doubt they’re one of the elite teams in the nation and we’re proud to be playing them every year.”
Smith, now a three-time, state-championship-winning coach, was wearing his 2013 ring during Saturday’s game. He wore it to “show them what we’re shooting for.”
Smith said if they make it back to the Citrus Bowl next year for the sixth time in a row, he won’t wear one of his rings.
The truth is he doesn’t need to. At Central and Booker T., the ring is no longer something to shoot for. It’s the expectation.