Land O’ Lakes coaching legend dies at 66
By Kyle LoJacono
“We lost a true legend and hero.”
Will Weatherford’s seven short words echoed those of thousands who learned of the death of Land O’ Lakes High legend John Benedetto.
The former Gators football coach, who led the program for 32 years, died in his sleep April 21, just a few days after his 66th birthday. He leaves behind his wife Vanie and son Giovanni.
John Castelamare coached against Benedetto for 23 years while at Ridgewood and Wesley Chapel.
“The county lost one of its leaders,” Castelamare said. “I’m really going to miss my old friend.”
Castelamare and Weatherford said the death comes as more of a shock because Benedetto appeared to be in good health.
The exact cause of death had not yet been determined as of April 27, the date of his funeral, but Weatherford said it was probably a good thing his former coach went peacefully in his sleep.
“As someone stated, if death had come for him during the day he probably would have found a game plan around it,” Weatherford said. “He always had a game plan.”
Weatherford, Florida’s Speaker of the House, was a linebacker for Benedetto from 1994 to 1997.
“He affected so many people,” Weatherford said. “Yeah, he was a football coach and made the program into a winner, but he developed great young men to go out and be successful in the world. There are thousands of people who he helped become the people they are today. … I bet if you ask anyone who lives in Central Pasco County, I’d say 99 percent of them have had their lives touched by coach Benedetto in some positive way. … The community lost so much more than a football coach.”
Weatherford knows from experience.
“I started hanging out with a rough bunch of friends (as a sophomore) and probably doing things I shouldn’t have been,” Weatherford said. “It was affecting my school and my ability to play. I remember coach Benedetto said he was worried about me and the choices I was making.”
Weatherford said Benedetto encouraged him to be a leader.
“That really had a profound impact on me,” Weatherford said. “I never wanted to have another teacher or coach ever think of me that way again. It really altered my priorities and was really a defining moment in my life. … I’m not sure I’d be in the position I’m in today without coach Benedetto.”
Benedetto, a Long Island Native, moved to Florida in the mid-1960s 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.
Benedetto coached seventh- and eighth-grade football for three years at Sanders Memorial Junior High before moving to Land O’ Lakes Junior-Senior High in 1974. It became Land O’ Lakes High the next year.
He was the wide receivers coach for two years before taking over the program in 1977. The Gators’ first win with Benedetto at the helm was a 3-0 victory Sept. 9, 1977 over Zephyrhills and Dan Sikes, who coached Land O’ Lakes its first two years.
The Gators 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 finished with a Pasco County record 196 wins to 149 losses, 18 winning seasons, 17 playoff berths, 13 district titles and two trips to the regional finals. The Gators also made the playoffs his last 12 seasons.
“He took a program from nothing and made it into something the community could be proud of,” Weatherford said. “When people think of Land O’ Lakes High School and Land O’ Lakes itself, they think of the football team, and coach Benedetto is the biggest reason for that.”
Castelamare, who now leads the program at Academy at the Lakes, said it was always a battle when playing the Gators.
“Nobody who played them thought it was going to be easy,” Castelamare said. “Didn’t matter how good your team was, Benedetto’s teams were going to play tough.”
Benedetto’s last season was 2008. It was his fifth year in the Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP).
“He was such a great family man,” Castelamare said. “I know he was upset when he couldn’t come back and coach, but he really started enjoying retirement and being around his family more.”
Weatherford, Castelamare and a large group of community leaders convinced the Pasco school board to rename the arena at Land O’ Lakes John Benedetto Stadium.
“We were so happy that we were able to do the naming of the football stadium after him while he was still alive,” Weatherford said. “I remember there were a lot of conversations where people said, ‘What’s the rush?’ Nobody knew this would happen, so it was great that he got to feel the outpouring of love from so many people. I think it was the culmination of his legacy.”
The school officially dedicated the stadium Oct. 19 at the Gators home football game against cross-town rival Sunlake. The bleachers were packed that night with people paying respect to the coaching legend.
“Tonight was such a great experience for me,” Benedetto said at the dedication. “I’m just so overwhelmed, and I feel so honored. This community has made me feel very special, and not just special this evening. I’ve had 38 great years in this community, and I want to thank the entire community for giving me the opportunity to work with your kids for 38 years.”
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker
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