By Chris Bernhardt Jr. | Hernando TodayI know exactly when I formally met Bill Vonada. It's hard to forget the first day of school.
Published: December 13, 2012
Published: December 13, 2012
It was 1993 and I was starting seventh grade at Powell Middle School. Vonada was my new math teacher.
He may not have known me prior to that day, but I certainly knew of him. After all, he was the football coach. At that age, I didn't need to know much else.
Even back then, he carried the presence you'd expect of a coach. He was friendly, personable, had a sense of humor that made him relatable to his students.
But you respected him, and you certainly didn't cross him.
I was no football player, and probably a worse mathematician. Still, he managed to impact my professional life a few years later. As a sophomore at Springstead I again had him as a teacher, this time in a business class.
Primarily the course involved learning to type, a skill that has come in quite handy in this line of work.
My fingers are on the home keys and these words are appearing on my computer screen at an above-average pace, and for that I can thank Coach Vonada.
The rise of Vonada, who stepped down a week ago tomorrow after 15 years as head coach at Springstead, through the coaching ranks coincidentally followed my path through high school in the late '90s.
He sort of graduated from Powell with my class, becoming Springstead's JV coach in 1995, the start of my freshman year.
Bill Browning, now the Sunlake head coach, was the Eagles' headman.
"At that time (Vonada) was young, thirsting for knowledge," Browning said. "I saw him grow professionally, knowledge-wise, by leaps and bounds."
Back then Springstead had become so overcrowded it used what is currently the Fox Chapel Middle School campus as a ninth-grade center.
The year I finally arrived on the main Mariner Boulevard campus as a sophomore happened to bring Vonada's promotion to varsity offensive coordinator.
Browning had left for Hernando, leaving the job to Pat McCoy. The Eagles won a district title that season, but couldn't solve rising Hillsborough County power Armwood in the first round of the playoffs.
My senior year, Vonada took over the helm. It happened Sept. 7, 1998, the Monday after a tough 54-7 loss at Central.
Coach McCoy had recently become athletic director, and time constraints were his official reason for handing over the coaching duties.
However, there had admittedly been a loss of focus by the team and a thought that change might help.
Still, the success Springstead enjoyed over the first two seasons of McCoy's brief tenure had already started to slip away.
The Eagles went 4-6 my senior year. I didn't see much of the team during the next four years while I attended college, but I know the records weren't pretty: a combined 11-29.
"Kudos to the administration for giving him time," said Joel Myers, Springstead's girls cross-country and track and field head coach with stints as a football assistant at Springstead and Hernando. "They recognized he was doing things right.
"Eventually with his system, things started clicking for him. I think he did what he had to do to have success at that school."
When I graduated from college in 2003, I returned home and soon became a reporter at Hernando Today.
The first opportunity I had to call Coach Vonada for an interview, I reintroduced myself. I didn't want to presume he'd remember me. He did.
That season, I witnessed the program reach a turning point. The Eagles went 7-3 and just missed the playoffs, then went to the postseason the next two years.
They've posted only one losing record during my run at this paper, going 4-6 in 2011. They've made the postseason four times and won two regional games.
I was there when Springstead stunned everyone by defeating an unbeaten Belleview squad in the 2004 playoffs, 43-32.
The host Diamondback Rattlers hadn't seen an offense like the Eagles' triple option. It showed – badly.
"When I came in as a freshman, they were just running a power formation, passing attack," said Nature Coast boys soccer coach Ian Wald, Springstead's quarterback at the time. "Coach Vonada saw my skill set was not suited for that, so he opted for the triple option."
That offense has become a staple, making power backs out of players of all shapes and sizes.
In 2004, 5-foot-10, 235-pound Tim Dow trucked his way to 983 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground.
In 2009, 5-foot-4, 145-pound Devean Huff amassed 1,236 yards and nine scores.
It has also allowed quarterbacks to show their versatility. Wald ran for 888 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior in 2004.
Comparatively, this year junior signal caller Tyler Mahla totaled 756 rushings yards and carried the ball into the end zone nine times.
"He's probably one of the greatest coaches I'll ever have," Mahla said of Vonada. "He always made sure we had everything thought out. His attention to detail is remarkable.
"He always put us in a position for us to win."
The Eagles did a lot of that this year. They began the season 9-0 and captured their first district crown since the one under McCoy in 1996.
As the victories kept piling up, Vonada would occasionally break from his normally even-keeled approach to postgame interviews. It was obvious he was enjoying what he knew was his final campaign.
My last interview with him as head coach, though, followed a loss to rival Nature Coast that spoiled what would have been the third 10-0 regular season in county history.
He handled it like a pro, crediting the visiting Sharks and noting how he felt bad for his players. However hard he took that defeat, his words and expressions did let on.
"I truly respect all the conversations I've had with him before off the field, they were personal and insightful," Nature Coast head coach Charles Liggett said.
"I think he's a great man. I have a great deal of respect for him. I just look at the struggles that program had the past couple of years and the way he kept on with his beliefs.
"He doesn't veer from – no pun intended – running the veer. He is who he is. He has his beliefs and he has his standards, which are high. His standards and beliefs in life hold true when he's 2-8, 4-6 or 9-2. He doesn't veer from that and I respect that greatly."
Talking to several of Vonada's colleagues, former or current assistants, bosses and players, the responses were striking uniform.
Phrases like "class act," "doing things the right way," and "building young men of character" came up constantly.
Consistently he was complimented for running a clean program, making the most out of teams typically short on athleticism but heavy on discipline.
"He has been a tremendous asset to our entire athletic department and our school," Springstead Principal Susan Duval said. "His character, his sportsmanship, his absolute dedication to do things the right way has made the biggest difference in the culture of the school."
In reality, I've never known prep football without Vonada's direct involvement. The 2013 season will clearly have a different feel to it.
For many like me who attended Springstead, and even Powell, while he coached at those schools, he assuredly is the mold of a high school football coach.
"He's probably one of the most honest, hard-working, trustworthy people I know," said Mike Garofano, the defensive coordinator promoted to replace Vonada on Monday. "He taught me a lot not just about football, but the game of life.
"I just hope to do half as good a job as he's done in 15 years. He's left an unbelievable legacy here and I hope to do the same thing."
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