BRADENTON -- One of the most telling moments regarding Joe Kinnan didn’t come from a dazzling run by Tommie Frazier or Tracy Sanders sneaking the ball into the end zone to give Manatee its first state title in 1983.
Those who know Kinnan best say it came this year when little-known sophomore linebacker Raland Brewer phoned Kinnan “to talk about nothing.”
“Raland called Kinnan on the phone at his house just to talk about stuff. That never would’ve happened before. Most kids would be afraid,” says Manatee assistant coach Chris Valcarcel, who played for Kinnan in the 1990s.
“He was the mathematician, the mad doctor of football back then,” Valcarcel says. “I never saw Coach Kinnan smile until my freshman year of college, when I was visiting back in town. Now he is a lot looser with the kids in a good way. Everyone always respected him, but before he wasn’t the guy you approached about things. Now he is the heart and soul of this team.”
People who have known Kinnan from his early coaching days in the 1980s say there is a dividing line at his cancer diagnosis in 2000.
Since then, they see a different person, one who smiles more, yells less and seems to be enjoying life to the fullest.
He was always a good person and cared about his players, but didn’t show his emotions much and seemed all consumed with football, some of his assistants say.
Heading to his seventh state final game Friday, Kinnan has known nothing but success since becoming Manatee High’s head football coach in 1981.
He left coaching in 2000 because of health issues involving cancer and returned in 2005, winning four region championships and a 2009 trip to the state title game.
He has changed for the better, according to many of his assistant coaches and former players. He is more introspective these days, but he sees that as part of the aging process.
Kinnan obviously doesn’t move as quickly as he did in 1962, when as a senior defensive lineman for Manatee, he recovered three fumbles in a win over Tampa Chamberlain, the consensus state champion at the time. No one knew then that would be a prelude to the greatness he would bring the program 21 years later.
“Maybe now I am more appreciative of how eventually it’s going to end. It’s getting closer to the end of the tunnel for my career and you look at things differently,” he said.
Kinnan insists he is mostly just older and wiser, perhaps refusing to accept he might have been a little gruff in his younger years. His assistant coaches for the most part loved him then, but say it’s a lot easier to be around him these days.
Kinnan has his own dividing line, which has more to do with philosophy than personality.
“As you get older, you have seen more things and try to adjust,” says the coach, who has won four state titles. “I break my coaching down into two things: how you treat people, which has nothing to do with X’s and O’s, and the other is coaching philosophy, which has everything to do with X’s and O’s.
“The X’s and O’s part is like a growing organism. As things change, we’ve gone from the I to the spread, and defensively have gone from a 4-3 to a 3-4 to a 4-2-5 defense based on what we feel we had to stop.”
Manatee defensive coordinator Jim Phelan, who has been with Kinnan for a long time, along with holding coordinator jobs at Bayshore and Southeast, says there has been a role reversal.
“When Joe starting coaching, he was the bad guy and we were the good guys. Now it has flipped, and he is the good guy and we are the bad guys,” Phelan says. “In coaching football, you always need a bad guy, somebody who has to yell at the kids. You knock them down and then build them up. Before it was automatic that he was going to let them have it, and we were going to build them up. But he has lightened up, and it’s better for him.”
He lets his coaches coach
People who know Kinnan say the two constant things he has always done is treat people with respect and let his assistant coaches coach. It’s a reason so many people want to coach under him.
His understanding of how important it is to let people coach came when he took the head coaching job at Fort Myers Cypress Lake in 1969 at age 23. He tried to do everything, and after two frustrating seasons (5-5 and 1-9) left for the college ranks until taking the Manatee head coaching job.
“I’ve always let my coaches coach. I might have my stamp on something, but it could be their idea and we sit down and talk about things, he says.
“Fort Pierce hurt us with a couple of big plays (in this year’s region championship game), and after the game I sat down with coach Phelan and talked about it. We had a kid who didn’t want to do what he was coached to do and a couple of their big plays came when he was lined up incorrectly.
“Before you win you have to keep from losing and do everything correctly. That’s what we tried to do in that situation. On their bubble screen, our guy took himself out of the play, and we completely blew it.”
Kinnan can be his own worst critic, particularly with his play-calling. He apologized to the team for how he called plays against Fort Pierce.
“I was a little too stubborn and tried to let our defense win the game without getting too much help. I should’ve let the offense take a bigger role,” Kinnan says. “In hindsight, that was a big mistake. They were obviously better than I thought they would be. But I have no problem being self-deprecating. I’d rather call myself out than you guys (media) call me out. When I apologized, I wasn’t worried what the players would think. I am their coach. I am not trying to be their buddy.”
‘It’s hard to win it all’
Game days have never changed for Kinnan in all the time he has been Manatee’s head coach. They are filled with anxiety that ends only with a victory.
“The hours prior to a game are extremely difficult and very stressful,” Kinnan says. “During the game, if the play-calling is working, it’s fun, and if it’s not, it’s not a lot of fun. Things can change quickly. In our first drive against Dwyer (in last week’s state semifinal), we were moving the ball, ripping off five or 10 yards a clip and were pretty excited. Then we fumble it away.”
Kinnan won each of his first four appearances in the state championship game and lost the next two, the last defeat coming in 2009 against Tampa Plant. It has been nearly 20 years (1992) since he won his last state title, but says it will not diminish his career if he doesn’t beat Jacksonville First Coast on Friday.
“It’s hard to win it all when there are about 85 schools in your classification, which means you should only win about once in every 85 years, so we really won more than our share already,” he says. “We are in the championship game and there are not any games after that, so we might as well go on and win it.”
The college years
Kinnan was offensive coordinator at Eastern Kentucky in 1979 when it won the I-AA national title and finished second in 1980 to Boise State.
“I never had any regrets about leaving the college game. A lot has changed and back then there were not a lot of restrictions on recruiting,” he says. “I worked seven days a week, six nights a week from mid-August to May and then worked during the summer.”
Kinnan threw his hat back in the college ring in 1995 when the University of South Florida was starting a new football program. He was one of the finalists for the job, which eventually went to Jim Leavitt.
“They pursued me and asked me to apply, and it would’ve changed my life dramatically if I had gotten it,” Kinnan says. “Leavitt was the right guy for the job. I think the fact that I was a little bit older hurt me and also that I had been coaching high school, though I coached 10 years in college. But that was when Jerry Faust went from high school to Notre Dame, and it didn’t work out. His experience made it difficult for guys to go from high school to college at that time.”
Ups and downs
It took Kinnan only three years to win a state title at Manatee. He won others in 1985, 1989 and 1992 while losing in the 1993 state final. The 1989 team is his favorite for family reasons.
“My son was one of 20 seniors who started on that ’89 team, and I knew all those kids from the time they were in middle school, so I wore two hats as their coach and a father of a player on the team,” Kinnan says. “You couldn’t be any closer to a team as I was because of being a parent. They used to come over to the house all the time. The team we are starting Friday has 12 underclassmen.”
When Kinnan left coaching in 2000, he wasn’t sure if he would return, but when the opportunity presented itself in 2005 at Manatee, he was ready. He tried the business world and was in charge of the four charter schools run by the Police Athletic League. It was rewarding, but he felt a void only football could fill.
“I missed the camaraderie you have with your assistant coaches and being around the school that I grew up around and where my family built a house in the early ’50s seven blocks away,” Kinnan says. “This is the school where my wife went, my son went, and we are longtime Bradenton people. I am just glad the opportunity to come back and coach here was available.”