End of an era? Legendary Manatee High football coach Joe Kinnan stepping away

jlembo@bradenton.comJune 21, 2014 

BRADENTON -- Joe Kinnan's legendary career has come to a halt.

Manatee High's venerable football coach, winner of five state titles and 290 games, announced Friday he is taking a medical leave of absence for the 2014-15 school year.

"I would love to continue as the head football coach. However, there are conditions that exist that make that impossible at this time," Kinnan said in a statement e-mailed to the media. "The turmoil and uncertainty that exists in the Manatee County School District has impacted my health to the extent that I cannot perform as head football coach at a level of excellence the Manatee players and fans expect and deserve.

"I want to thank the community for their 29 years of support of me."

A 1963 graduate of Manatee, Kinnan took over the program in 1981 and won the school's first official state football championship in 1983. He won three more before stepping down after the 2000 season to battle prostate cancer and returned to the sideline in 2005. The Hurricanes won their fifth state title in 2011.

Kinnan had been on medical leave from the high school since December and did not coach this spring. Jim Phelan, one of Kinnan's longtime assistants and current defensive coordinator, served as the interim coach.

Jason Montgomery, Manatee's athletic director, will look at the coaches on Kinnan's staff but may advertise the position nationally Monday. He

is unsure if Kinnan will return after this year and whether the new hire, whether internal or not, will wear an interim tag.

"Me and Don (Sauer, Manatee's principal) will get together this weekend and iron some things out," he said. "We have to approach what's best for our program and our kids. We have an incredibly strong staff, and we showed that in the spring. If you were at the practices, you could see they ran like a fine machine.

"It's a double-edged sword: Time is of the essence, but we want to make sure we get the right person for our program."

The Hurricanes were perennial contenders under Kinnan, winning 27 district championships and 14 regional titles while making seven trips to the state championship game. Kinnan was one of 12 coaches named to the Florida High School Athletic Association's All-Century Team in 2007, and along with Paul Maechtle at Southeast helped turn Bradenton into a prep football hotbed that hosted two state title games on the same night in December of 1985.

Off the field, however, Kinnan and the Canes' tradition-rich program began to take a hit in the court of public opinion. Rod Frazier, an assistant coach and parent liaison at the high school, came under investigation in 2012 for his alleged improper conduct with female students. Frazier pleaded no contest in April to three counts of battery and three counts of interfering with school attendance.

Though neither Kinnan nor any members of his staff were implicated in the matter, a faction of the community believed Frazier's indiscretions were covered up to protect the football team, ranked No. 1 in the nation in three separate polls at the time of the investigation, even going so far as to compare it to the scandal that rocked Penn State University and tarnished the once-pristine legacy of coach Joe Paterno.

Kinnan was Manatee's athletic director when the school's baseball program and its coach, Dwayne Strong, committed a number of violations that led to a fine of more than $13,000 from the FHSAA. Rick Mills, the district superintendent, recommended Kinnan, who stepped down as athletic director in December, be suspended for 10 days after the district conducted its own investigation. Kinnan plans to appeal the recommendation.

Mills, however, said Friday he was looking forward to seeing Kinnan back on the sidelines this fall to chase his 300th career win.

"He is a great coach with a great legacy." Mills said.

Kinnan's decision coupled with Maechtle's retiring at the end of last year means the 2014 season will mark the first since 1980 that neither Kinnan or Maechtle will coach a football game in Bradenton. The area's longest-tenured head coach is now Lakewood Ranch High's Shawn Trent, hired in 2005. After him is Out-of-Door Academy's Brett Timmons, the school's only coach since it began playing football in 2006.

"It all started when Coach (John) Sprague stepped down from Riverview," said Dave Marino, Palmetto High's head coach. "Last year was Coach Meck and now it's Coach Kinnan. I grew up idolizing these guys and trying to emulate what they did. ... And it's sad because you want to coach against the best, you want to coach against these legends, these icons."

Marino is set to enter his fifth year coaching the Tigers but has been an assistant in the area in 1990. He was on Maechtle's staff in the 1990s, helping the Noles win consecutive state championships in 1993 and '94, and was right in the thick of the Southeast-Manatee rivalry, one of the state's best.

"He was the mark," Marino said of Kinnan. "When I was at Southeast, that's what our mission was, and that's why I went there -- I wanted to try and bring Southeast to that level. And we were able to do that. ... But he set the standard, he set the mark, and you're always trying to emulate the best."

Defensive lineman Ryan Fines, a rising senior at Manatee who has committed to Miami, called Kinnan the best head coach he ever had.

"The way the group got behind him and the way he lead us," said Fines, who moved to the area last year from Colorado, "was phenomenal."

Fines said he was surprised when he heard the news.

"During the spring, the coaches said he was coming back," he said. "But I knew he had some health problems."

The question: Will Kinnan come back? Montgomery, who spoke with Kinnan on Friday, said the coach himself didn't know about the future.

"We were waiting this whole week because we knew Joe was meeting with the doctors. We were hoping we could come to you guys and say, 'Joe's good to go,' " Montgomery said. "But that's just not the case."

Said Chris Conboy, Manatee's quarterbacks coach: "I don't know if this is it. His health may get better, and he said if he got better, he would entertain coming back. I always envisioned Joe coaching until the very end, but he has himself and his family to take care of. That's what's most important."

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