John Benedetto leaves lasting impression on Gators football
By Kyle LoJacono
It’s nearly impossible to measure the impact John Benedetto had on Land O’ Lakes High football and the surrounding community.
Benedetto, 65, spent 34 years with the Gators’ program, 32 as the head coach. While at the helm, he won a Pasco County-record 196 games to 149 losses with 18 winning seasons and 17 playoff berths, including 12 straight trips to the postseason to close his tenure.
For his contributions, the Pasco School Board unanimously voted June 19 to rename Land O’ Lakes’ arena John Benedetto Stadium. The motion was suggested by a group of community leaders, including state Rep. Will Weatherford, who played linebacker for Benedetto.
“There are a lot of other stadiums named after coaches who in their own right have done some great things, but to me what he did was profound,” Will said. “He affected hundreds if not thousands of young men’s lives.”
The journey to everlasting status started when Benedetto came to Tampa Bay in the 1960s.
Before the sidelines
Benedetto moved from Long Island to play wide receiver for the University of Tampa (UT). He played four years at UT and was inducted into the Spartans’ athletic hall of fame.
After graduating in 1970, Benedetto started teaching physical education at Sanders Memorial Junior High. The spot opened when Jerry English became an administrator.
“Jerry is the guy who hired me at Sanders and brought me into the Land O’ Lakes community,” Benedetto said. “If it wasn’t for him I might have worked in Tampa or Carrollwood or somewhere else.”
English also hired Al Claggett.
“I was the football coach at Sanders for three years before they bumped me to administration, and my principal told me to find some good coaches,” English said. “I knew John from playing softball. We hired him and coach Claggett. They coached together at Sanders and then at Land O’ Lakes until John retired, so I guess we found some good coaches.”
Benedetto coached seventh- and eighth-grade football for three years at Sanders before moving to Land O’ Lakes Junior-Senior High in 1974. It became Land O’ Lakes High the next year.
To the high school ranks
Benedetto coached wide receivers at Land O’ Lakes in 1975 and 1976, the first two seasons for the school, but that wasn’t his only responsibility.
“Back then we did a lot,” Benedetto said with a laugh. “I was the assistant for varsity (football) and coached the freshman team. I was also the junior varsity basketball coach and junior varsity baseball coach along with teaching PE.”
The Gators went 1-9 and 5-5 in their first two seasons, respectively, both with Dan Sikes as coach.
“I remember our first varsity football game in 1975,” Benedetto said. “We played up at Wildwood, and they beat us 50-0. You could just see the look in our kids’ eyes. Their eyes were big, and it seemed a lot of them were afraid. The game only made things worse for us. That was pretty tough for us coaches to try and settle things down and teach the game to the kids to at least be competitive that first year.”
Michael Keough was a senior quarterback in 1976, his only year with the squad. His family moved from St. Petersburg.
“From my perspective just moving up there, the immediate thing I noticed was he was quite the athlete,” Keough said of Benedetto. “He used to run patterns for me in practice to show the players how do them. He taught me a lot by working with me and the receivers. … All the players had a tremendous amount of respect for him.”
Keough returned to coach quarterbacks for Land O’ Lakes for 11 years, including Benedetto’s final eight seasons.
Benedetto got the chance to lead the program in 1977 when Sikes left to coach at Zephyrhills High.
“Dan Sikes told me when he was leaving after he heard I was applying for the job, he said ‘You know you’ll never win here at Land O’ Lakes High School’,” Benedetto said.
Sikes never made the playoffs at Zephyrhills.
The early seasons
Benedetto got his first win over Sikes and Zephyrhills on Sept. 9, 1977.
Mark Peterson kicked a field goal to send the Gators out victorious, 3-0. Benedetto remembers it as “one of the ugliest” wins of his career, but that was to be expected at a place with no history.
“What was happening was before the school opened was all the kids in the Land O’ Lakes area were being bused to Dade City,” Benedetto said. “They were going to Pasco High School, and that’s a good 30 miles. Because they were being bused, hardly any of them were playing football. In 1975 when the high school was built, then those kids had an opportunity to get into athletics.”
Benedetto did have the benefit of coaching many of his players before they entered high school.
“I was coaching them in PE since the third grade at Sanders,” Benedetto said. “I stayed with them through high school, so we could work with them when they became seventh-graders right on through their senior years, and they became pretty darn good football players.”
Land O’ Lakes went 4-6 in Benedetto’s first season. The squad improved to 7-4 the next year, along with collecting the program’s first district championship.
Benedetto said the key to the fast turnaround was creating a fundamentally sound team.
“We always wanted to build a well-rounded team that did the little things right and didn’t do things to beat ourselves,” Benedetto said.
That mentality is what sticks out to John Castelamare, who coached against Benedetto for 23 years while at Ridgewood and Wesley Chapel.
“We had many wars in that stadium,” said Castelamare, who now coaches at Academy at the Lakes. “We had some last-minute wins on our side and some last-minute wins on his side. … Nobody who played them thought it was going to be easy to win. Didn’t matter how good your team was, they were going to play tough. It was always a well-prepared team.”
Will said he was always ready to play because of Benedetto’s game plan and personality.
“You just never knew what you were going to get with him, but he was a great motivator,” Will said. “He was the kind of coach you wanted to please. He wasn’t easy to please, but you wanted to please him. He has a great sense of humor, and you could tell he really loved his job.”
That’s what it is known as — The Streak. It started in 1997 when the Gators got into the playoffs. Benedetto led Land O’ Lakes to the postseason the next 11 years, setting a county record with 12 straight trips.
“It wasn’t just the fact that we made the playoffs the last 12 years, but we also won the district championship six of the last seven seasons,” Benedetto said. “That was a pretty big accomplishment.”
Will was a senior on that 1997 team.
“My first season on varsity I was a sophomore and we went 1-9,” Will said. “We were awful. We played a lot of sophomores and freshman. My junior year we were 3-7, getting better but still very young. My senior year we were 6-4 and went to the playoffs, and that started The Streak. It went all the way until my little brother Stephen, who is the youngest of my brothers, graduated. I was lucky enough to be a part of that playoff streak.”
The Streak included the program’s only trips to the regional finals, coming in 2002 and 2003. Quarterbacking those teams was Will’s younger brother, Drew.
“My relationship with coach Benedetto goes back a long way,” Drew said. “When my brother Will was there I was the water boy with coach Benedetto’s son Giovanni, who is my best friend. So I grew up on the sidelines of Gators Stadium, now to be called John Benedetto Stadium, my whole life.”
Drew, who called Benedetto a second father figure, started every game under center beginning his freshman year in 2000, which he believes helped him earn a spot playing at Florida State University.
“He saw my work ethic and believed in me as a freshman,” Drew said. “We had a quarterback who was going to be a senior who was really good, but he took a leap of faith to give me an opportunity. I think that made all the difference in my career in high school and in college.”
Will said Benedetto always made it fun to be around the program. He added the notoriety of The Streak cemented Benedetto’s legacy, created the program’s tradition and helped get kids into college.
“He’s the winningest coach in Pasco history,” Will said. “The guy had a 12-year playoff streak, produced a ton of Division I athletes. If you just look at the body of work, I mean he is and was Land O’ Lakes football. He started that program from scratch, built it up and left it in great condition. That’s rare. Pasco County has had a lot of great coaches, but none have had a 12-year playoff streak or have that amount of wins.”
Culture of consistency
The Streak lived on past the coach that started it.
Benedetto was forced to retire after the 2008 season, his fifth year in the Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP). The Gators made the playoffs two more times before The Streak was snapped in 2011.
The Streak itself symbolized the stability of Benedetto’s tenure. Sikes lasted two years at the helm, as did Benedetto’s replacement Matt Kitchie. Current Land O’ Lakes coach Brian Wachtel is entering his second season.
Benedetto also had loyalty with his staff.
“Al Claggett (defensive coordinator) and Bill Gebauer (defensive backs coach) spent the entire 32 years with me as my assistants,” Benedetto said. “I really want to thank them for their time and service because they could have been head coaches.”
Tom Carter, one of Benedetto’s players and current coach at Gulf, was on Benedetto’s staff for 20 years (1988 to 2008).
Rock Ridgeway joined the staff in 1992. He and Gebauer coached their final season with the program last year. English spent 28 years on those sidelines (1975 to 2003).
Keough said Benedetto’s longevity also had to do with his ability to change.
“The thing that I think is amazing was how different Land O’ Lakes was in the 70s, and the goals of the kids were much different from then into the 2000s,” Keough said. “He was able to adapt to the players throughout the years.”
Keough pointed out the support Benedetto’s wife, Vanie, gave to the program.
“Vanie was also a big part of his success,” Keough said. “There are so many things that she did, that I don’t know them all. She cooked us dinner, she washed our clothing and she did all the filming. She helped make that program special.”
Drew said Benedetto’s impact on the community for decades makes the renaming of Land O’ Lakes’ stadium appropriate.
“It’s one thing to have success, but there’s another thing to be said about having success for a long period of time,” Drew said. “There’s not a more worthy person to receive that honor, not only because of the wins, but because of the impact he made on the lives of so many students.”
Impact away from football
Benedetto helped take Land O’ Lakes from a fledgling program to one with some of the greatest tradition in Tampa Bay, but his impact stretched beyond the field.
Will recounted how one meeting with Benedetto shaped his life.
“My sophomore year I was hanging out with a rough bunch,” Will said. “I was starting to pick bad friends, and it was affecting my school and my athletic career. I remember coach Benedetto pulled me into a room with some other coaches and said he was worried about me.
“He encouraged me to be a leader and make good decisions,” Will continued. “That really had a profound impact on me. It bothered me that he saw me in that light. I remember thinking at age 15 that I never want to have another teacher or coach ever think of me that way again. It really altered my priorities.”
Drew said he uses what he learned from Benedetto every day while working with his co-owned company, Strategos Public Affairs.
“He drove you to be the best that you could be, and I think that carries over,” Drew said. “I get up and try to work hard every day in the job I have, and a lot of those things were instilled from him at that very impressionable age as a high school student.”
Benedetto changed Drew in another way.
“I was always Andrew my whole life,” Drew said. “Everyone in my family and on sports teams called me Andrew. Ultimately I think he thought Drew had a better ring, and he started calling me Drew. When I got into high school, I remember him asking me what I wanted to be called because newspapers were doing stories on the team. I thought it was pretty special that he started calling me that, and from that point on I’ve been Drew.”
John Benedetto Stadium
Among those who attended the June 19 school board meeting were Will, Drew, English, Castelamare and Keough.
“When I spoke that first time in front of the school board, I told them he always put the kids first,” Keough said. “Time and time again he’d say, ‘What is best for this kid.’ ”
Castelamare added, “When I was talking to the school board I told them they had a package deal with (Benedetto). You’ve got a great coach and a great family man, he created great tradition at the school and top it all off he’s Italian. When I first met him I already liked him because he’s Italian like me. We were friends through all those wars, and it was an honor for me to be there and talk for him.”
Benedetto said having so many people push for the naming of the stadium means “the world” to him — almost as much as spending 32 years on the Gators’ sidelines.
“It’s difficult to really put into words what it meant to me,” Benedetto said. “I developed a great relationship with the community, the parents and most importantly the students. One of the greatest things about coaching for as long as I did is getting to see former players come by at games after not seeing them for years. There they are and they have their wives and little kids. That’s the best thing a coach can see is success of those kids after they’re gone.”