The decision to turn down Naples High School’s head football coaching job was a no-brainer for Bill Kramer in 1998. Not only would he have to take a 30-percent pay cut, his family would have been without benefits for a while and his focus on football would have been cut significantly as he was expected to be a full-time counselor at the school.
That’s without considering the state of the Golden Eagles program. He’d have to leave a successful Miami American High program for a one that spent the previous nine years as a homecoming opponent each week and went through five head coaches in that span.
“It wasn’t going to happen,” Kramer said.
Over the course of 11 years coaching in Miami-Dade County, Kramer’s priorities with regard to his players changed significantly. Leaving them for anything other than a big-time job, the type of opportunity you don’t pass up, would be a mistake.
In hindsight, almost 18 years, two state titles and 175 wins later, doubling back to take the Naples job while putting his faith in his own abilities and leaving the financial aspects of the decision in God’s hands turned out to be the right decision for him, his family and an entire community.
When he returns to Miami-Dade with his Golden Eagles, who’ll take on powerhouse Miami Central in a Class 6A semifinal Friday, his mission remains the same.
It’s troubling when Kramer hears teenagers from the Miami area compared to those from Naples. The perception is that players from Miami are naturally tougher due to growing up in the inner city while players from Naples have it much easier.
Kramer said, with the disintegration of today’s family, a lot of his players at American and Naples are without one or both of their biological parents. Most of his players at Naples live east of US 41 and while he admits his players at American were a bit more motivated to get out of a violent environment, the commitment demonstrated by both sets of players were the same.
And their needs were quite similar.
“Kids are kids wherever they come from,” Kramer said. “They need someone to love them. They want consistent boundaries.”
It took him a while to realize that.
Early on when he was cutting his teeth as an assistant at Hialeah Miami Lakes and then under coach Charles Yanda at American, it was all about ball.
He coached in Miami during the heyday of the University of Miami football program. At that time, he and other coaches had a ton of access to Hurricane coaches like Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson, Butch Davis and Art Kehoe.
Kramer, who became the head coach at American in 1995, said going out for wings after games with the ‘Canes coaches was common and the time spent in the film room with them taught him a lot about the game.
However, a trip to Daytona Beach for the FHSAA state championships changed the way he viewed his job.
“I thought to myself that this is it for a lot of these kids. But what about tomorrow?” Kramer recalled. “What do you have when you can’t read or write? Are these kids going to be good fathers and good husbands? Tomorrow there was nothing for them.”
From that point on, he preached using football as a tool to get an education and become a better person. And, he was perfectly content doing just that at American.
Kramer wasn’t actively looking for another job, but that didn’t keep Naples athletic director Ernie Modugno from pursuing him.
“In my first 10 or so years at Naples, I was just getting used to being an AD,” said Modugno, who is now in his 27th year at the school. “I didn’t realize how much a winning high school football program meant to a school.”
The realization motivated Modugno to find the best coach possible to turn the program around. He wasn’t just looking for a coach who could beat rival Barron Collier, but one who could win a state championship.
In order to find one he had to think outside the box when it came to his recruitment. Modugno decided to set up a booth next to helmet, jersey and other equipment vendors at a Florida Athletic Coaches Association convention in Daytona Beach.
In front of his booth were two easels, one featuring a professional looking job ad on a poster board outlining the vacancy at Naples with a starting salary and contact info for Modugno. The other was an aerial picture of Naples High and its facilities.
Modugno received 60 or 70 resumes over the course of the day. None of which belonged to Kramer.
It took a chance meeting with the coordinator of a college football recruiting service to get in contact with Kramer. Greg Henley described Kramer as a “rising star in Florida football” and forwarded Modugno his contact information.
After returning from Daytona Beach, Modugno called Kramer and spoke to him for nearly two hours about the job and asked him to come for an interview a few days later. Modugno’s next call was to then-Naples principal Gary Brown.
“I just kept saying to Gary that Bill was our guy,” Modugno said.
During Kramer’s 4-hour interview, he outlined the potential of the Golden Eagles program, and it was clear he’d done his homework. Modugno extended a job offer.
At the time, Collier County Schools capped its pay scale at just five or six years year of experience, Modugno said, which left Kramer looking at a nearly $20,000 pay cut.
Turning down the offer was understandable.
“I prayed about it, but didn’t have peace,” Kramer said.
Meanwhile, Modugno and Brown set out to find a candidate just like Kramer, but were far from impressed.
“We had no idea what Bill was capable of,” Modugno said. “We just knew he was smart, articulate and had an incredible work ethic. He was that dynamic.”
A meeting with a college friend, a financial planner who Kramer attended Liberty University with, changed the tide of the decision. They spoke about how Kramer and his wife Susan, who at the time had two daughters, could make a mortgage work on a teacher’s salary if he changed jobs at some point.
“He asked me if it wasn’t about money would I take the job (at Naples),” Kramer recalled. “I told him the key was getting a coaching staff together and making it work over there.”
The problem at Naples had always been while the head coach changed he was always stuck with the same staff. Somehow Brown made that aspect of the deal work by creating the teaching positions needed, allowing Kramer to start from scratch.
With that hurdle cleared, Susan Kramer had just one question for question her husband.
“Do you feel at peace not going?” she asked.
Kramer accepted the job and hired Paul Horne, another finalist for the Naples job, as his offensive coordinator and Sam Dollar, who coached against Kramer while at Miami Central, as the defensive coordinator.
The Kramers found a way to take care of the financial aspect.
“There is a creator and he provided for us,” Kramer said.
The decision has worked out for all involved as the Golden Eagles have become one of the state’s top programs and Kramer continues to cement his status as one of the legendary coaches in Southwest Florida.
However, he said even if Naples was a perennial 2-8 program, his mission to impact his players beyond football wouldn’t have changed. Wherever he coaches, football will always be used as a tool to open other doors.
“The proof is in the pudding,” Kramer said. “When you do your best and run your program with integrity while giving the players what they need outside of the game great things can happen.”
Modugno couldn’t agree more. He still has that blue and gold job vacancy poster board stashed behind the door in his office to remind himself what life was like before Bill Kramer came along.