Editor’s note: This is part of a series on the top stories in Pasco County during 2013 as selected by The Pasco Tribune staff.
LAND O’ LAKES — The man who essentially breathed life into the Land O’ Lakes football program was taken from it in his sleep earlier this year.
Coach John Benedetto, who stood at the helm of the Gators football program for 32 years before his final season in 2008, died April 22 while sleeping.
Benedetto, a Long Island native and 1988 University of Tampa Athletic Hall of Fame inductee, was 66.
It’s not uncommon for a person who has accumulated his accolades, which includes 196 victories and 13 district titles, to be honored in death, but before his passing, the Pasco County school district approved the renaming of the stadium he called his second home for nearly half his life.
On Oct. 19, 2012, Benedetto stood at midfield inside the newly named John Benedetto Stadium and in typical fashion, a towel was draped over Benedetto’s right shoulder. Only this time it wasn’t a large bath towel — it was a small, yellow towel commemorating the occasion.
Benedetto, who found his niche as a golfer in retirement with his wife, Vanie Benedetto, snatched the wireless microphone from the podium and paced a small portion of the field as he addressed the crowd.
“Since I have the entire Land O’ Lakes community here, on both sides (of the stadium), I want everyone to know that I, John Benedetto, do not own Bendetto’s Italian restaurant,” he joked that night, drawing a cheerful roar from the crowd. “I can’t go anywhere — everywhere I go and I get introduced to someone, they go, ‘Oh, are you the guy that owns that restaurant up there in Land O’ Lakes?’ No. I wish I did, but I don’t.”
Benedetto’s tenure as the school’s football coach ended with 12 consecutive seasons in the playoffs. Benedetto produced a 196-145 record, 18 winning seasons and 17 playoff appearances. Twice he guided his teams to the region finals. He also collected six Sunshine Athletic Conference titles.
Benedetto began his coaching career at Sanders Elementary School in 1971 after graduating from the University of Tampa in 1970. He spent two seasons as an assistant under Dan Sikes at Land O’ Lakes High School before taking over the program in 1977.
In all that glory, one of his final decisions regarding the program was the hardest and the manner in which it came was controversial. In March 2009, Benedetto received a letter from the school district denying him the final year of the Deferred Retirement Option Program, also known as DROP.
His plan was to coach the 2009 season and walk away. Instead, the letter said his final day of employment would be June 5, 2009.
It came as a shock considering former Land O’ Lakes Principal Monica Ilse approved his final extension.
At the time, Benedetto said he was given the option to coach while off campus and be paid only the supplement.
On the night of the stadium renaming, those hard feelings never surfaced.
“The final thing that I want to say is that tonight was such a great experience for me,” Benedetto told the crowd on that October 2012 night. “I am just so overwhelmed and I feel so honored and 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. Thank you and God bless you. God bless Land O’ Lakes High School and go Gators!”
He is survived by his wife, Vanie, son Giovanni Benedetto, stepchildren Brian Kerns and Melissa Hickok, sisters Marian (Vincent) Santostefano and Patricia (Frank) Parisi, five grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.