With preseason practice starting Monday for Florida’s high school football teams, Leon coach Bill Ragans spoke with Democrat assistant sports editor Jim Henry on a variety of topics. The former Florida State and professional player is entering his sixth season at Leon and has an overall record of 28-24. The District 3-6A Lions went 6-4 last season.
Q: How were your team’s summer workouts?
A: It went really well. We have a very good group of committed leaders who rallied the kids, and they’ve all shown up all summer and worked hard and bought into what we are doing. We did four different 7-on-7 tournaments, at FAMU, Bainbridge (Ga.), Cairo (Ga.), and Chiles. We were able to compete a little bit and brought some young kids along.
We are going to be young at a few of the skill positions. We will have some older kids with more experience, but we have a lot of young kids as well across the board. But it went good. I am very excited about how they performed in the summer.
Q: In terms of roster numbers, is your program up or down?
A: A little down. But I like our kids. We don’t have as much depth, but I like our kids. It’s a good group.
Q: You had a grueling opening schedule last year. Talk about your 2012 schedule.
A: (Last year) we opened with Godby and Lowndes — one of the best teams in Florida and one of the best teams in Georgia. I’d say that wasn’t the best scheduling, but we opened with Godby for awhile, so that’s always going to be a tough way to start the season. Then to go up and play a national powerhouse like Lowndes, but we really had them on the ropes, to be honest with you.
It was a tough way to start the year, but confidence-wise the kids realized we can play with anybody, we just have to get over the hump. I feel like our kids played hard. This year, we dropped Lowndes and picked up Maclay. Georgia is on a different scheduling cycle this year. We just had nine games, so I picked up Maclay.
We are always gong to play our four city games, we have five district games, and I picked up Maclay. It’s going to be a competitive schedule as always.
Q: Talk about the new FHSAA guidelines that prohibit the start of two-a-day practices until Aug. 12.
A: It’s tough a little bit because you work all summer to get your kids in shape, and then for the state to almost rein you in to say you have to go back and almost start at square one. If you put in the work in the summer, you are going to show up for camp in fairly good condition. I feel like we had really good attendance during the summer and our kids worked, so I think we are going to be in decent condition.
But I also totally understand what the state is doing. It’s for the health of the kids. With the weather in Florida, it just gets unbearably hot out there sometimes. The state implemented different things, the county has recommended that we practice in the evening if at all possible after six, and there are parameters regarding the heat index.
I understand it that you are protecting your kids and keeping them healthy. Even like in the NFL, it’s trying to reel in how much they are hitting to protect against concussions. Truthfully, we are in a situation where we don’t have as many talented kids as some of the other programs in town. So we are going to have to reel in our contact a little bit and hopefully we can keep all of our kids healthy for Friday night.
The state is approaching it the right way, though there are a few things I’d like to see different. The first week, I wish they’d still let us do two-a-days. If you put in all the work in the summer, I wish they’d let us start at the beginning of practice with that. Even after the first three days of shorts, let us get into two-a-days. Again, I don’t want anything to happen to our kids either.
Q: As a former player, talk about the seriousness of concussions and the importance of protecting your players’ health.
A: It’s scary for kids. Two or three years ago, we had a player who would have been a three-year starter for us at center, and he had a serious concussion. He missed a ton of school and had issues being in bright areas and with bright lights. I had several concussions when I played, getting your bell rung and trying to shake out the cobwebs.
Thinking back, it was like, “All right, I have to go. I have to practice. I have to play.” Whereas now, they really check you and hold you out for your safety. But it’s for the good of the kids. With the literature we as coaches receive, we now get about concussions and helmet testing, so we try to put them in the best equipment possible.
We’ve talked about scaling back on some of our contact to protect our kids. We’d rather them be healthy on game day than beat them up in practice. I don’t want to get them hurt during the week.
Q: Each year, players transfer to other schools for various reasons. You have been on both sides of it. What is your feeling about players transferring, especially when they point to college exposure as a reason?
A: I feel like kids are trying to do this for the wrong reasons. If they can play football, college coaches will find them. They are going to get the same opportunities at any school. I feel like if they are going somewhere because this school can get them a better opportunity than the next school.
I feel like we do everything we possibly can to help our kids get into school. We send film to every school we can, we contact coaches and reach out to coaches. The Division-I players, the players who are committing, they could be playing at the smallest school in Florida. If they are a Division-I player, they are going to get a scholarship.
Those kind of players, the coaches and colleges know about it. The kids that are hard to get into school are the kids who are good players but might not be tall enough, might not be quite as fast as the other guys. The Division-II, NAIA, Division-III kids, those are the kids we have to work the hardest to get into school. At the same time, generally those are the kids you want to work for because they’ve done everything you’ve asked of them. They performed in the classroom, performed on the football field, they are model citizens who represented your program … those are the kids who are hard to get into school but I take pride in on signing day and even after.
We signed seven players (in February), and one was a Division-I player. With (transfers), many times it’s kids being fed bad information that this school can get you more scholarships or better scholarship than that school. If you can play, they will find you. They will find you wherever you are at.
Q: Your program was involved in a highly publicized post-game fight with visiting Middleburg last season. What lessons were learned from that incident?
A: We have to educate our kids. After the season, my main focus was finding something we can do to try to teach these kids about right from wrong, about character, and the kind of person they need to be and how to become that person. I went everywhere and called everyone I knew to look for information.
We are doing a character (building) program that we started the first week of our summer workouts. Our kids turned it into story time. I put them up in the old gym once a week and we talk about pride, talk about confidence, talk about unity, talk about commitment, integrity, the 21 blocks of character. We talk about a different building block each week, and it has worked out perfectly.
From the beginning of our summer workouts through the football season is 21 weeks for us. With that fight, I felt like as a coach and a staff, we had missed somehow with our kids. I felt like I let them down in some way because of the way some of them responded and the way we reacted. It wasn’t all of them, but coming into this summer, from ninth-graders on, I want them to start learning how they are supposed to act.
The ninth-graders this summer, I made them shake my hand and look me in the eye and tell me their name. I harped on it. That’s part of becoming a man, shaking a person’s hand and looking them in the eye. I love my coaches and I hire good people. I want good people to lead these young men, and I am excited about that as much as anything.
Q: There were multiple changes among area principals, and Leon has a new principal in Billy Epting.
A: He was an assistant principal here when I first got the job. He supports athletics and coached the girls flag football team to its second state championship, so he has coached and has been extremely active. He was at every game when he was our assistant principal. I don’t think there’s going to be much of a change. I know he’s going to be supportive of what we do as long as we put a good product out on the field.
Coming out of last year, I already made up mind that we had to do something to help the character of our kids. And he came out and we talked when he first got the job, and he talked to the kids. He’s a great guy, and I feel like we have great kids and we are moving in the right direction.
Q: Are you excited about your alma mater, FSU? Is this the year the Seminoles return to national prominence?
A: I hope so. I am very excited about it. I’ve known Jimbo (Fisher, FSU head coach) when he used to come around when I was coaching in Georgia. I also got to know Mark (Stoops, defensive coordinator) and several of the defensive coaches. I am very excited about what’s going on over there. I hated the fact that Greg Reid was a knucklehead, but that’s an opportunity for somebody else to step in. They have plenty of talent, that’s for sure.