TAMPA — After practice Monday, Hillsborough High School players formed a ragged line in the football fieldhouse. The man handing out the ice cream sandwiches kept making sure no one cut in line or got seconds before others got firsts.
"Yeah, a regular coaching legend," Earl Garcia said.
He laughed. He expected you to laugh, too. It's part of the — yes! — the legend, warm and welcoming, always with a joke, that inviting elfin strain that runs through the only head coach his school has known the last quarter century: Coach G. Earl the Pearl.
"Really, I'm a survivor," Garcia said.
Earl Garcia goes with Friday nights. Soon he'll stand alone, all 5 feet, 5 inches of him. Garcia, 66, will win his 255th game, becoming the all-time winningest coach in Tampa Bay, passing the late Billy Turner, Garcia's beloved friend and mentor.
"It means a lot," said Garcia, who could tie Turner with a win Friday night at Tampa Bay Tech. "Billy was my role model. I wanted to be Billy. Everybody wanted to be Billy."
No, Garcia has never won a state championship. Plant's Robert Weiner has won four. Sean Callahan won two at Armwood. No matter. Coaches turn over in Hillsborough County every year. Not Garcia. Coaches gather around him at clinics. He's the scout master, the leader of the band, their pied piper.
They even like him after he beats them. The Pearl leaves them laughing.
"Earl is the standard," Weiner said. "When I first got the Plant job, the first person not from my football family to call me was Earl Garcia. And I'm not the only one who received a call like that. Earl reaches out not only to promote the game of football but the game of football in Hillsborough County."
Garcia laughed and recalled being an assistant to Billy Turner at Hillsborough. He remembered his first game for Turner in 1977. He had been pressed into being defensive coordinator.
"Billy fired me at halftime," Garcia said. "We were rated No. 1 in the state preseason. We played King. They were No. 10. At the half, they hadn't attempted a forward pass, they hadn't punted, they had 250 yards rushing. We couldn't stop them.
"At the half, Billy tells me, 'Let me see the play sheet.' He says, 'You can run this front, this stunt and that's it. And when this is over, you're fired, turn in your keys.' "
After midnight, Garcia finished washing the uniforms, then went to Turner and put his keys on the desk. Billy pushed them back.
"Put those things in your pocket," Turner said.
"In my career, I've been on top, on the bottom and in the middle, everywhere you can be," Garcia said.
On a recent Friday night, Hillsborough was stunned in its home opener by Plant City. The Terriers began 0-2 for just the third time under Garcia. You knew it would be a strange night when Hillsborough was penalized for delay of game — on the opening kickoff. The look on Garcia's face said it all.
It never ends.
But Earl the Pearl went on. That's what he does, to the tune of a 253-103 career record, including a 217-63 mark at Hillsborough, highlighted by nine 10-win seasons.
A few Fridays back, when Hillsborough was idle, Garcia was inducted into the Gaither Football Hall of Fame. The Pearl was Gaither's head coach from 1987 to 1991.
"I got fired at Gaither twice," Garcia beamed with pride. "I'll be the only guy in a sports hall of fame who got fired twice at the place he's going in."
• • •
"You coming to the house after?"
That's the Garcia greeting on Fridays. Always. He might as well ring a gong. After the Plant City loss, Garcia's staff gathered at his home, which is three blocks from Hillsborough's campus. The routine never changes, win or lose. You get to Earl's house and his wife, the indomitable Gilda, the principal at Lockhart Elementary School, has a feast waiting. People don't leave. A lot of times, they end up sleeping on the pull-out beds and couches.
"You have to make it about family," Garcia said. "I learned that from Billy. When you take dads and husbands away from their wives and children to take care of other children, you need to take them in, care for them."
Tempers were short that Friday. Garcia sat by the pool, nursing a bourbon and listening to his assistants' overheated complaints, ever the confessor. The game had been an undisciplined mess. Garcia had kicked a player off the team at halftime. After the game, he called the child's mother to make sure he got home. The next day, Garcia took the kid back after his mother called, worried that she'd lose him without football.
"Some of the coaches wanted to say to hell with him," Garcia said. "But it's the streets that say to hell with these kids. The streets are undefeated."
That is Earl's world. He watches over his program like a hawk, neither warm nor fuzzy, but on the lookout for his kids.
Garcia was a pioneer, one of the first coaches in the county to install offseason conditioning for his teams, one of the first to get a fieldhouse built. When he arrived at Hillsborough as head coach in 1993, the county's programs were wallowing in the ooze, those humiliating trips to get pounded by Lakeland and Manatee were burned into Garcia's brain.
Garcia and his Hillsborough teams changed that. They thought big and won big. It inspired other county programs, including ones that eventually surpassed Hillsborough.
"I definitely patterned myself after Earl a little bit," said Callahan, who was a Garcia assistant at Boca Ciega High School in the early 1980s, Garcia's first head coaching job. "Earl demanded a lot, he was all over it, but he kept it fun, because nothing is ever the end of the world in Earl's world."
Take Garcia's college career. He played for Plant, a fireplug nose guard and weightlifter, a spunky West Tampa kid who never stopped trying. He sent out his own film in search of a college scholarship. He caught on at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., where he started the final six games of his freshman year as a 222-pound center. He already knew he wanted to be a coach.
One more thing …
"I flunked out, promptly," Garcia said with a grin. "Straight Fs. 0.0. Mr. Blutarsky. Dean Wormer notified my draft board. I asked Earle Bruce if I could walk on at Tampa U. He never returned my letter, which is a clear indication of why he's in the College Football Hall of Fame. I went from a scholarship to paying my way through USF. They let me in. Phys ed major. 0.0. I don't know why they let me in. Now I'm an educator. Isn't that something?"
In Earl's world, there is always teaching, always humor. Before games, music blares in Hillsborough's locker room. It's the kids.
"They drive me crazy," Garcia said. "But it's a short drive."
There has been heartbreak. Garcia sees it every day at Hillsborough, where he also serves as a "student success" coach.
"Our graduation rate is right around 90 percent, which is off the charts," Garcia said. But he sees "the sads" all the time, as Garcia calls the stories. Kids going home to no food, no adults, no chance. Garcia hasn't been perfect, he'll tell you, but he has fought his share of fights, sometimes with peanut butter sandwiches as a sword.
"If we don't feed our kids, a lot of times they don't get fed. This is real life. I don't care what the hell anybody says. Fire me. I don't care. I'll go to the beach. I'm feeding these kids."
• • •
One of Earl's two children, Earl III, played for his father and now coaches the Hillsborough defense. The son was asked when the father will step away.
"They'll probably get a shovel and put him right there at the 50," Earl III said.
The closest Garcia came to a state title was his fourth season at Hillsborough, 1996, when the Terriers went 13-2 and lost in the championship game. Garcia has detractors, people who think he should have won more with Hillsborough's talent or done more for his players. He also has Hillsborough senior running back and safety Dontae Hopkins.
Last December, a few days before Christmas, Hopkins was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was shot in the buttocks. Hopkins looked up from his hospital bed at Tampa General Hospital and saw the Pearl's contorted face.
"He had the tears coming out," Hopkins said.
"I told him I loved him. Then I asked him, 'What the hell were you doing there?' " Garcia said.
"Coach G cares," Hopkins said.
And now he's closing in on Billy, his hero. And he won't stop when he gets there. Garcia has had chances to leave over the years, for a college job, and could easily retire, but there he is every day, walking through Hillsborough halls and history.
"I've been blessed with great kids, the greatest coaches, the greatest coach's wife," he said. "I'd like to think I left it better than I found it. I think I have. It's the only job I ever wanted. I fell in love with this place in the 1970s. Everything. I walk by the big building every morning — I used to run by it before I had hip replacement — and I go, 'Wow. I'm head coach at that place.' "
"You coming to the house?"
Here's to Earl the Pearl.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029.