Saturday, August 8, 2009
Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Nick Kotys
Coral Gables High School coach Nick Kotys gets a victory ride from this players after winning the state title in 1967
During the 1930s through the mid 1960s, high school football was king in Miami. The University of Miami had yet to become a national power and the Miami Dolphins didn't exist. It wasn't unusual to see crowds of 30,000 to over 40,000 pack the Orange Bowl for big high school games. Schools like Miami High, Edison and Jackson were among the best in the state and in the nation. But no coach casted a bigger shadow over the local high school scene than Nick Kotys of Coral Gables. From 1952 through 1971, Kotys' Coral Gables Cavaliers were the gold standard of high school football, winning 6 state titles including 4 mythical national championships. He was Dade County's winningest coach with a record of 160-33-9.
A native of Pennsylvania and a graduate of Villanova University, Kotys had already been a successful high school coach in Eastern Pennsylvania. He coached 13 years in the Keystone State at three different high schools, sporting a record of 98 wins, 24 losses and 7 ties. But like any successful and ambitious coach, Kotys wanted to take his talents to the next level. He became the offensive coordinator and offensive backfield coach at Yale University under head coach Herman Hickman. But something was missing. College coaching didn't satisfy his love for the game. Kotys missed high school football. He loved molding young men and missed the teaching aspect of the profession.
In 1952, he decided to move to South Florida and became the head football coach and athletic director at Coral Gables High School. At the time, Coral Gables never had a winning season. The school's football program was considered a doormat for bigger bullies like Miami High and Edison. When Kotys took the job, many told him he was crazy and should have stayed at Yale. The first thing Kotys noticed was the dominance of Miami High. The Stingarees were the best program in Florida at the time and at one point went 26 years without losing a game to a Dade County school. Kotys was determined to change the face of Dade County football and it didn't take him very long. By his third season in 1954, Coral Gables played Miami High to a 14-14 tie in the Orange Bowl. The program was getting better every year and in 1956 it finally reached superpower status. Gables would go undefeated during the 1956 season which included resounding wins over Edison and Miami High. The Cavaliers were voted state champions by all the sportswriter polls. Two years later in 1958, Gables once again was voted state champion. (Prior to 1963, state champions were determined by polls. The FHSAA adopted the playoff system in 1963)
So how did Kotys turn Coral Gables into a juggernaut so quickly? One of the first things Kotys did was to make full use of the student body. Every boy at Coral Gables High School was invited and encouraged to play football. Kotys believed in strength in numbers and creating a culture where football mattered and school pride was important. He never cut a player unless the young man was unable to maintain decent grades or broke team rules. Coral Gables often fielded teams with over 100 players on its roster. While not every player was athletic enough to play, Kotys made sure each kid had a role in practice. He believed in developing self esteem and a family atmosphere. It became an honor to wear the blood-red jersey and silver helmet of Coral Gables.
By the 1960s, Coral Gables had overtaken Miami High to become the best high school football program in Florida and earned national respect. When the FHSAA adopted a playoff system 1963 to dertermine state champions, Kotys' Gables teams won the first two state titles. His 1963 and 1964 teams were led by a skinny quarterback named Larry Rentz. When Rentz wasn't scoring or throwing touchdown passes, he was intercepting passes as a defensive back. At 6'1 and just 145 pounds, Rentz was built like a rubber band and was the most unlikely looking football player ever seen. But when Coral Gables defeated Jacksonville's Robert E. Lee 14-7 in the 1964 state championship game played at the Orange Bowl, Miami Herald writer Neil Amdur coined the headline "No Defense for Larry Rentz" . Rentz was named Prep All American by Scholastic Coach Magazine and Coral Gables was voted national champion by the Minneapolis-based National Sports News Service.
Gables once again won back-to-back state titles in 1967 and 1968. Those teams were among the first to include black athletes, including the entire starting backfield consisting of quarterback Craig Curry along with running backs Bertram Taylor and Gerald Tinker. The 1967 team featured a savage defense that shut out 9 of its 13 opponents. Kotys would later say the 1967 squad was the best team he ever coached. In 2007 the FHSAA voted the 1967 Cavaliers as the best high school team in Florida history.
The Orange Bowl was the scene of many of Kotys biggest triumphs and losses. The rivalry with Miami High routinely drew over 30,000 fans every year from the late 1950s through 1967. The 1965 game between Coral Gables and Miami High drew more than 47,000 people--the largest crowd to ever watch a high school football in Florida history. The 1966 and 1967 games against Miami High actually outdrew many University of Miami and Dolphins games at the Orange Bowl.
The 1960s also brought many changes to Dade County. The Castro Revolution led to a huge influx of Cubans to South Florida and the civil rights movement helped bring integration. Kotys adjusted well to the times. In 1966 all-black Carver High School in Coconut Grove became a middle school and its high school students integrated with Coral Gables High. Kotys once set up a table and a loudspeaker outside Carver High to welcome kids to Coral Gables High. Kotys never played favorites when it came to his players. The best player would start no matter what skin color. In 1967 he made the decision to promote Carver transfer Craig Curry as his starting quarterback. Curry went on to become All-State and later was an All Big 10 quarterback at the University of Minnesota. In 1972, Curry was a late round draft choice by the Miami Dolphins. He is today the athletic director at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
But there were also changes in the 1960s that Kotys did not embrace. The 60s were a turbulant time with the Vietnam War raging on and the growing counterculture of young people experimenting with drugs. Kotys made it clear he was troubled with the trend. He ruled his football team as a dictatorship and he didn't like the new generation's desire to question authority. He made it clear that none of his players were allowed to grow their hair long or have any facial hair. All players were required to wear dress shirts and ties to school on gameday. His philosophy was when you played for Coral Gables High, you represent yourself with class.
Kotys didn't win games on coaching alone. He had some of the finest talent to ever play the sport in Dade County. His 1970 team had 4 future NFL players: Glenn Cameron, Neal Colzie, Ralph Ortega and Gary Dunn. His 1958 state championship team included running back Joe Auer, who would later score the first touchdown in Miami Dolphins history. His 1967 state championship team had two prep All Americans on defense. That same team also had running back Gerald Tinker, who later became an Olympic gold medalist as a member of the United States 4x100 relay team in 1972. College coaches were frequent visitors to the Coral Gables campus trying to recruit many of Kotys players. Kotys was particularly fond of Ohio State's Woody Hayes, whom he struck up a long friendship.
Nick Kotys retired from coaching in 1972. But he is still synonomous with Coral Gables High School. Perhaps no football coach in Dade County history ever meant more to his school. Even if you didn't play football at Coral Gables, you felt his pressence. He was known for his fiery and passionate speeches during school pep rallies. He was so loud, he didn't need a microphone to be heard. In 1988 the Kiwanis Club of Coral Gables established the Nick Kotys Award, given annually to best high school football player in Dade County. Coincidently, the only player to win the Kotys Award twice was current 49ers running back Frank Gore. It's only fitting Gore graduated from Coral Gables High. Kotys was inducted into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame and was named by the FHSAA as one of the greatest coaches in state history.
Kotys passed away in 2005 at the age of 92. He had been living in a retirement home in Columbus, Ohio. Shortly after his passing, a memorial was held at Coral Gables High School that drew a large crowd. It had been almost 40 years since Kotys roamed the sidelines. But he has never been forgotten in Coral Gables.
Notable Coral Gables players coached by Nick Kotys
Mike Harrison - Class of 1957
Billy Williamson - Class of 1958
Ted Saussele - Class of 1959
Frank Lasky - Class of 1959
Joe Auer - Class of 1959
Bruce Fischer - Class of 1961
Jack Card - Class of 1964
Larry Rentz - Class of 1965
Tommy Warren - Class of 1966
Craig Curry - Class of 1968
Paul Johnstone - Class of 1968
Gerald Tinker - Class of 1969
John Clifford - Class of 1969
Roger Peace - Class of 1969
Mitch Berger - Class of 1970
Glenn Cameron - Class of 1971
Ralph Ortega - Class of 1971
Neal Colzie - Class of 1971
Gary Dunn - Class of 1972