The first day of spring practice came and went last Monday.
And inside a football stadium in Hillsborough County, Matt Kitchie never remembered early May feeling this good.
He is a veteran of these workouts, going through them during his days at Southeast, Saint Stephen’s and Land O’Lakes.
This time, however, was different. Better.
“The first day of spring practice has never been so meaningful,” he said, “as May 2nd was this year.”
That’s what happens when you’re granted a second chance to do something you’ve always wanted to do, when one opportunity slips through your fingers and another shows up in its place.
“We all mistakes,” Kitchie said. “But I hope I will be judged on how I got back up.”
Kitchie didn’t go into great detail Thursday about the off-the-field, in-school incident involving one of his players that transpired last fall at Land O’Lakes. What we do know is that Kitchie was not allowed to coach the Gators’ playoff game with Tampa Jefferson before the folks at Land O’Lakes decided not to renew his coaching contract.
So now Kitchie, a Southeast graduate and the former head coach at Saint Stephen’s, finds himself at Tampa Leto, piloting a program that scored two touchdowns last season and one won game by virtue of a forfeit.
It’s quite a contrast from the situation he inherited during the summer of 2009 at Land O’Lakes, which has made the playoffs every year since 1997 and went 17-3 in two years under Kitchie.
In a way, however, the coach and his new program are meant for each other. Kitchie sees some potential at Leto, gushing about the team’s speed after watching the first three days of spring practice, and said the team just needs some direction.
It appears Kitchie may have found some direction, too.
“I take full responsibility for everything that happened at Land O’Lakes,” he said. “It was a tremendous learning experience, and it made me keep my eyes open to everything that is going on around me.”
Those mistakes have given Kitchie’s coaching career a chance to come full circle. At Leto, has to build from the ground up, just as he had to do in 2006, when Saint Stephen’s hired him to coach the second incarnation of its football program.
“At Saint Stephen’s, they wanted to build something great for the kids. And at Leto, it’s the same thing,” he said. “They have realistic expectations. It’s not about wins and losses, but we’re going to go in there and say, ‘Let’s build a great program for the kids.’”
The hardest part of what happened at Land O’Lakes, Kitchie said, was he never wanted to be that guy, never wanted to be the coach that got in trouble. He felt as if he let plenty of people down -- his parents, his players and his mentor, Southeast coach Paul Maechtle.
But Kitchie can’t change the past. What he can do is try and rebuild his coaching career, as well as Leto’s football program. He said he was honest about the incident during his interview at Leto and told his players everything when they asked him about it.
It was a tough thing to go through, but what happened last year in Pasco County has made Kitchie appreciate football and his role as leader and a role model, more so than ever before.
He is sorry for what happened. Now his goal is to learn from it and move forward.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” Kitchie said, “and I think going to Leto might be the best thing that happened in my career, because those kids might need me as much as I need them.”
John Lembo, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 745-2097.