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Bill Minahan, iconic former Jesuit coach, leaves inspirational legacy

TAMPA – Players always said he made you believe in the impossible. His fiery locker-room speeches – high volume, veins popping from his neck, arms waving, spit flying everywhere – were legendary.

But for Bill Minahan, the iconic state-championship football coach and athletic director at Jesuit High School, an unforgettable character known as “Wild Bill,’’ it wasn’t so much about what he said.

It was about what he did.

“Bill was about giving back,’’ said Wharton High School boys basketball coach Tommy Tonelli, his close friend and next-door neighbor. “He made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. He made you feel like a million bucks. And if you were one of his players, you’d run through a wall for him.’’

That’s the legacy of Minahan, who died Monday at Tampa General Hospital, according to his wife, Martha. He was diagnosed with an incurable form of blood cancer about three months ago. He was 84.

Three decades ago, at the close of his coaching tenure, Minahan thought he received a death sentence. His kidney was failing. But after receiving a life-saving transplant in 1986, he capitalized on the second chance by tirelessly promoting organ donations with the same enthusiasm he brought to the sideline and practice field.

With a renewed gusto for life, he and Martha traveled to every major-league baseball stadium and made regular visits to watch their beloved Notre Dame football program. They wrapped themselves in local causes. Even when faced with periodic health obstacles, such as skin cancer, Minahan never got discouraged. He vowed to keep fighting.

In the past week, as a stream of family and long-time friends made a pilgrimage to his bedside, Minahan’s fight came to a close.

During his latest battle, Minahan’s wife said he maintained an optimistic spirit, even as he resumed dialysis.

“He is a warrior,’’ she wrote in an email to friends at the time of his diagnosis. “He has always exceeded every expectation and always surprised even the smartest of doctors. He will continue to teach us how to live with grace and dignity under pressure.’’

Minahan was a motivator, delivering messages that resonated for three generations of athletes. He was a pioneer, leading Jesuit to Hillsborough County’s first state football title. He was an innovator, embracing passing-game concepts well before their mainstream popularity.

Mostly, he was an inspiration.

“He made an indelible mark on my life and probably thousands of others,’’ said former Jesuit player Skipper Peek, winner of the 1975 Guy Toph Award given annually to Hillsborough’s top senior player. “To say he was one of a kind, well, that would an understatement.’’

Minahan grew up in Johnstown, Pa., where most of his friends faced a future working in the coal mines. Instead, he became a Marine who served in the Korean War. Then he received an opportunity with the University of Tampa’s football program from 1952-55. As an electrifying quarterback, he led UT to a 31-11 mark.

Like many of his Spartan teammates, he became a coach.

He worked on Frank Lorezo’s staff at Plant High School, then served as head coach at Jefferson High School for two seasons. But he made his biggest mark at Jesuit, a school that served as his identity.

In 20 seasons with the Tigers, Minahan was 132-78-2. The highlight occurred in 1968, when Jesuit defeated Lakeland Kathleen 39-25 to win the Class A state football championship at Tampa Stadium. The Tigers were paced by Leonard George, who scored four touchdowns, then became one of the first African-American players to sign a football scholarship at the University of Florida.

Minahan’s Tigers were constant contenders and he sent a few hundred players to the highest levels of college football. On Nov. 22, 1985, Minahan won his final game at Jesuit with a 28-21 victory against Gaither High School.

It was the end of one life.

And the beginning of another.

Four months later, he received his new kidney.

“We walked out of Tampa General with a miracle,’’ his wife said.

That fact wasn’t lost on Minahan, who made it his personal mission to live a full life while helping others at every turn. Each year, he held a luncheon to raise money for the LifeLink Legacy Fund, which assisted needy organ recipients with medications and transportation. On a more individual level, Minahan’s influence also was felt.

“I’ve been doing this for nearly 30 years and I’ve never seen anyone like him,’’ LifeLink nurse Marge Murphy once said. “He is the most dynamic cheerleader. He gets into the persona of a coach and riles up the group.’’

That was no surprise to the people who knew him best, including Plant coach Robert Weiner, a former Jesuit student who has guided the Panthers to four state championships. It was all in the delivery. Minahan often came pounding through the doors, imploring his players with urgency and volume, sometimes mixing his commands with hair-raising expletives.

When he was done, Minahan generally asked a nearby priest to say the Lord’s Prayer.

“Bill Minahan was out of this world,’’ Weiner said. “If you couldn’t get fired up by that man, then you didn’t have a pulse.’’

Minahan never lost his leadership ability. When his 1968 state champions held a reunion and dinner party 37 years later, Minahan gave an impromptu speech that had everyone hooting and hollering like they were football-driven teenagers, even though they were really doctors, lawyers, businessmen and educators. Some were grandparents.

Minahan never was prouder than that night. His players raised $125,000 to form the “1968 State Champion Football Team Endowed Scholarship,’’ used to underwrite tuition for a needy Jesuit student.

“There’s nothin’ you guys can’t do!’’ Minahan roared that night. “It was true in 1968 and it’s true right now. You guys are what Jesuit is all about.’’

To the players, Minahan was what Jesuit was all about.

“An experience like (that 1968) football team, I think, sets you up to be competitive in life,’’ former Jesuit end Paul Kubena said. “He pushed us beyond our limits. You take that characteristic way, way beyond high school. You get a belief in yourself that allows you to take risks.’’

Minahan had a way of expressing himself – almost Yogi Berra-like – that seemed to make sense to young people.

One of his phrases, usually delivered with high volume:

“Nothin’ don’t mean nothin’ unless it’s somethin’.’’

“I can honestly say there probably isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t think of him,’’ Peek said. “Outside of my parents, my wife and family, I can’t think of anyone who had a bigger impact on my life. I know there are lots and lots of people who feel the exact way.’’

Minahan, a member of the Tampa, UT, Jesuit and Florida Athletic Coaches Association Halls of Fame, maintained his hard-driving style, even when health issues presented challenges. His kidney began failing in 1983, when he began dialysis.

“Sometimes he got so excited, it looked like he was going to physically explode,’’ said Mike Boza, who took over Minahan’s athletic-director position upon his retirement from Jesuit in 1994. “There were so many times we thought any day could be his last — we’d always be standing behind him, ready to catch him if he fell, but he never did. He is just physically and emotionally amazing.

“He never missed a practice, as a player or as a coach. He’d come from the hospital in the morning after doing kidney dialysis for four hours and then go to practice in the afternoon. It would make us feel so bad if we thought of missing practice because he was going through so much and he’d still be there with no excuses.’’

Minahan’s competitiveness manifested itself in later years when he participated in the U.S. Transplant Games. He was a four-time gold-medal winner in badminton, earning a mention in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces In The Crowd.’’

“He led an amazing life,’’ Tonelli said. “I will always consider it a privilege that I just got to sit with him and hear his stories. Some people make an impact that just can’t be measured. Bill Minahan was definitely one of those guys. There won’t be another like him – ever.’’

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