When Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris branded the 2010 season as a "Race to 10" in August, he was stating his team's unflinching goal for the season: a playoff berth. Finishing the race meant playing meaningful games in the month of December. Now at 9-6 with one game remaining, postseason play is still possible and Morris' race has been a success.
Of course, the "Race to 10" concept was met with some skepticism by football analysts back in August. The Bucs were coming off a three-win campaign in 2009, so few thought it likely they would improve by a whopping seven games.
Inside team headquarters, the Bucs believed, and that's what mattered. Brandon High School Head Coach John Lima knows the feeling.
Following a three-win season of his own in 2009, Lima was determined to put together a winning campaign for the struggling Eagles, who hadn't been to the playoffs since 2007. Thanks to a dedicated coaching staff and hard work both on and off the field, the Eagles' efforts paid off in the form of a 10-2 record, that elusive berth and – as a bonus – the Buccaneers' High School Coach of the Year Award.
"A lot of great things happened," said Lima. "Our players came together, our coaching staff came together and we had a great season. This is just another great thing to add on top of it."
The Buccaneers honored 10 high school coaches from West Central and Central Florida during this year's prep football season. Each coach was invited to One Buccaneer Place, where he received a tour of the team's training facility and an opportunity to watch practice. Following practice, Morris surprised each coach with a certificate signed by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Buccaneers General Manager Dominik and Morris, a personalized Coach of the Year football and a $1,000 donation from the NFL Youth Football Fund to his school's football program.
As Coach of the Year, Lima's Eagles receive an additional $1,000 to go towards the football team. Before the Buccaneers game against Seattle at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, Lima was greeted on the sidelines by Dominik, who proudly presented him the award.
"I think it's huge any time you can emphasize youth sports, and this is just one of the many things that the Buccaneers do," said Lima. "I think what we do as a coach is very important, especially nowadays, and anytime you can get a kid out there and teach him life through a sport, it's good."
While Lima's honor recognizes his tremendous turnaround on the gridiron, his coaching success is also the result of off-the-field improvements, where he has emphasized the importance of schoolwork and community service. His players have become annual participants in local charity events and nonprofit youth football camps.
"One of the things I try to do is provide perspective for them, so that when they have challenges in life, they can understand that life is bigger than where they're at and there are a lot more things going on than what they know," said Lima. "To me, the best way to do that is to involve them with community service. Get them involved with lower-income families, maybe kids that are less fortunate, so they can see what kind of life they have. Get them involved with Relay for Life and cancer patients and see how quickly life can be taken from you.
"I think that all those things have sort of opened their eyes and made them appreciate what they have, and that leads to a more humble and honest type of kid. That's what we are all about, trying to help these kids build some character."
Since becoming Brandon's head coach in 2006, Lima has also instituted mandatory study hall for his players. In that time, the team's composite grade point average has improved from 2.0 to 2.8.
"We set [study hall] up for the kids that weren't doing well and it was actually our honors kids and the kids that normally do well that loved it most because they didn't have to go home tired from practice and do it then," explained Lima. "Really it's been well received from all directions. It gives me an arena where I can remind them daily about how important it is... when you hear it every day, we start every practice with it, they start getting a better handle of how to approach their grades, and it works."
Lima was named the Buccaneers' Coach of the Week for Week Three of the 2010 season after a 31-20 victory over Plant City High School, where the Eagles matched their win total from all of 2009 and propelled themselves into local prep football Top 10 rankings.
Though he thoroughly enjoyed September's visit to One Buccaneer Place, Sunday's trip to Raymond James Stadium was even more memorable.
"To be recognized by the Buccaneers is a huge deal," said Lima. "Financially, it's a great boost for our program too. And to be out here on the sideline of the game is a phenomenal experience."