Golf

John Wilkinson drove Cocoa football to its potential

It was three days before Christmas of 2010, and John Wilkinson was running across the field following the Florida Athletic Coaches Association All-Star Game. He had coached the North team in a game that didn’t count, serving as little more than a chance for seniors to play one more time before most ended their football careers.

The North had lost, and although his own Cocoa High team had won its third state championship just 11 days earlier, he was not happy.

Cocoa head football coach John Wilkinson call out instructions to his team during a September game in Viera.

Cocoa head football coach John Wilkinson call out instructions to his team during a September game in Viera.

Todd Wilson, who served on Wilkinson’s coaching staff that night, remembered how upset his friend had been about the inconsequential defeat.

“He’s running across the field after the game, and as we’re shaking hands with the other coaches, he’s asking every one of them, ‘Do you want to play next year in the regular season?’ and the next guy ‘How about you?’ “

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It wasn’t that Wilkinson needed to fill his Cocoa schedule. He wanted to beat the coaches who had bested him for one night.

“He is mighty competitive. There is no doubt about it,” said Wilson, now retired as Melbourne High head coach and a former coordinator on Wilkinson’s staff at Cocoa. “Losing does not sit well with him. It wasn’t even his team; it was an all-star game.”

Six years later, almost to the week, Wilkinson will take his Cocoa Tigers back to the state final. They will face Jacksonville Bolles on Thursday in Orlando for the Class 4A trophy.

The Tigers won their first of three titles in 2008, leading Wilkinson to say he wanted a championship ring for every finger. One week ago, after five consecutive years of losing to Miami Booker T. Washington in the state semifinal round, he was visibly moved when his Tigers broke free of the BTW hold, 24-21 at Cocoa Stadium. He said a heavy burden had been removed from his shoulders.

Few have watched Wilkinson as closely and as long as his friend since childhood, Lance Jenkins. Now on his staff, Jenkins played football from youth leagues through varsity ball at Merritt Island High with the man he calls “Johnny.” He joined as a coordinator at Wilkinson’s first head coaching job, Brooksville Central in 2002, and the two were reunited in 2014 at Cocoa.

“From the time we were young, he’s always been that competitive,” Jenkins said. “Checkers, ping pong, whatever.”

Wilkinson’s desire to win has led him to embrace challenges intended to make him and his team better. He has not been shy to talk to his players about the goal of winning the state championship from the first day of August practice, and he has taken his team across the country fo face the best opposition, from Maryland and Pennsylvania to Louisiana and Texas, west to Las Vegas, where his team lost on Sept. 2 to Bishop Gorman, the No. 1 team in the USA Today Super 25, 46-10.

It is Cocoa’s only 2016 loss in 11 games.

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Those who know the 12-year Tigers head coach credit his success to intelligence — both Jenkins and former Cocoa athletic director Chuck Goldfarb described Wilkinson as “brilliant” — and to a leadership style that balances a demand things be done his way with his willingness to surround himself with a staff accomplished enough that just about any of them could replace him if the program faltered.

“I would say, in the coaching profession, the guys that are successful don’t have that fear,” Goldfarb said.

It was Goldfarb who hired Wilkinson to head the program when Gerald Odom left following the 2004 season. Odom, legendary for leading Merritt Island to a pair of state titles and a runner-up finish, inherited an under-accomplished Tigers program in 2002 and, a year later, led it to its second playoff win ever and its first in 16 years.

“Everyone in Brevard County knew the Cocoa athletic program was a sleeping giant,” Goldfarb said. Several candidates were interviewed when Odom left, and more than one Cocoa assistant at the time had coached with championship programs, but Goldfarb had known Wilkinson since the latter’s childhood days, when he served as Goldfarb’s bat boy for Merritt Island baseball. Later, he had watched the Mustangs offensive guard become a Merritt Island assistant under Odom.

Cocoa football head coach John Wilkinson yells out to the team an early season game in Cocoa.

Cocoa football head coach John Wilkinson yells out to the team an early season game in Cocoa.

“He had the same passion as he does now. I knew he was a hell of a coach. Johnny was my guy the whole time, because I had seen him in action.”

So has Jeff McLean. Now the head football coach and athletic director at Merritt Island, McLean coached and taught Wilkinson there in the 1980s. He noticed his student’s intelligence and his unwillingness to leave things to chance, and when Wilkinson became an assistant, he noticed traits destined to make him a successful head coach.

“You could just see his relationships with the players, the effort he would put into things and the effort he would get out of them from it.”

Wilson joined him that first fall at Cocoa, 2005, and he noticed his boss set the tone early when 21 players were late to the first practice. Regardless of who they were, the new coach punished them all.

“He let it be known quickly who was in charge. A lot of guys aren’t willing to do that.”

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Jenkins has seen the expectations Wilkinson sets for his players and the rapport they share. Jenkins had his own expectations for what would happen to his friend after they graduated Merritt Island together in 1988 and Wilkinson went on to major in political science at the University of Florida.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that if he hadn’t gotten the head coaching job at Cocoa, he’d be the governor or a senator,” he said.

Perhaps Wilkinson would have simply refused to lose elections. Jenkins, also on Wilkinson’s all-star coaching staff for that 2010 FACA game loss, confirmed Wilson’s story about his friend’s postgame challenge to the winning opposition as “absolutely true” and the same thing he’s witnessed in those checkers games or the challenges they’ve shared together.

“He’s the guy that, when you’re playing a (golf) scramble, you want him taking the big putt,” Jenkins said, “because he’ll make it.”

Contact McCallum at 321-242-3698 or bmccallum@floridatoday.com. Follow facebook.com/FLtoday.brianmccallum and @Brian_McCallum on Twitter.

High school sports | floridatoday.com/sports/high-school-sports/

Class 4A state football final

Orlando Citrus Bowl, Dec. 8, 7 p.m.

Jacksonville Bolles vs. Cocoa

Cocoa football head coach John Wilkinson yells out to the team during an early season game in Cocoa.

Cocoa football head coach John Wilkinson yells out to the team during an early season game in Cocoa.

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