SEFFNER — At a luncheon Thursday, in front of his Hillsborough County peers, and players and educators, Armwood High football coach Sean Callahan choked up after accepting the Billy Turner Coach of the Year Award.
“I don’t get like that often,” Callahan said. “It just came out.”
He told you one reason why, maybe the biggest.
“We’re still here.”
Armwood is back. Sean Callahan, in his 30th year at the school, his 24th as head football coach, never left. The undefeated Hawks play for the 6A state championship today in Orlando. They’re decided underdogs against nationally ranked Miami Central.
“This would be the biggest win in program history,” Callahan said.
For a lot of reasons.
On the field, Armwood has won three state titles.
But the 2011 championship win, over this same Miami Central, was stripped from the Hawks and the record book after the Florida High School Athletic Association ruled Armwood used ineligible players, five instances of parents of Armwood players falsified information to gain entry to the school. No coach or teacher was linked to the violations. The hammer dropped nonetheless.
Callahan had to return the championship trophy to the Armwood principal at the time. He had to erase the 2010-2011 he had quickly painted on the billboard near the Hawks stadium, to go with 2003-2004 and 2004-2005, the other championship seasons. Armwood vacated 26 wins.
That wasn’t the worst of it.
“It hurt because everyone thought we were cheaters, that this is how we did things here,” Callahan said Thursday night in his office after practice.
“It was a major hit. It shook me. Because there were people who thought maybe Sean Callahan hasn’t been a good person, maybe Sean Callahan is a cheater. We heard that Sean Callahan wasn’t going to be coaching here, that Sean Callahan was going to quit, that Armwood football would never be the same. And we were hearing it from prominent people.”
Armwood won nine games last season. Callahan was proud of that team as it played through all the noise. He’s proud of this year’s team. And he’s proud of the 2011 group, forever.
The investigation, the fallout, but mostly the perception, ate him up for a long while. He also was going through a divorce. He buried himself in coaching. He slept in his office a lot. He knows there are probably people who will never look at his program the same, who think he was a cheater then and a cheater now.
“You work for years, for not a lot of money, you think of yourself as a giver,” Callahan said. “The one thing you never think you’ll be accused of is being a cheater and a liar and a no-good person. The only people I could lean on were my coaches, my players and my parents. We had to hunker down and absorb the blow.”
He sat in his office and talked about his team’s improved academics, and about how he has never been closer to his players and their parents. He admits he had serious issues with the last Armwood administration, but he praised the current one for its support.
You looked at a nearby office shelf. The 2003 and 2004 state title trophies were there, as was the 2011 title trophy and …
The 2011 title trophy?
The one he had to give back?
“No, I bought my own, my money,” Callahan said with a smile.
He ordered a duplicate from the Gainesville trophy shop that makes the FHSAA’s hardware. It’s not unusual for coaches to order a duplicate trophy for their homes. But this instance is unusual. The FHSAA would not be happy. Callahan doesn’t care.
The trophy he bought cost $110. The receipt is still on the back of it. He says he keeps it in his office for his players, past, present and future.
“People might view it as me being defiant,” he said. “It’s more a family thing, a personal thing.”
It was getting late. Callahan had some laundry to do — his team’s laundry. The head coach has always done that.
“Who else will?” Callahan said. “Besides, I want it done right.”
Armwood is back in the big game.
Sean Callahan playfully stuck out his tongue. Na-nana-naa-nah.
We’re still here.