ST. PETERSBURG — Mike Alstott has played in dozens of big games in his career. Big games.
He’s the A-Train, maybe the most popular player in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history. He won a Super Bowl. He was a six-time Pro Bowl fullback.
Now he’s a high school football coach at Northside Christian, and he’s getting his Mustangs ready for the Class 2A state semifinals.
Kids’ stuff, right?
“Oh, the nerves are up there,” Alstott, 42, said. “The nerves, everything, yeah. The butterflies are there. Everything is there. You’re excited. You’re scared. I think that’s how you have to be. The feeling I’m having, and I know all these kids are having, is what it’s supposed to feel like if you really want it, if you really want something bad enough.”
Alstott wants it bad.
The transformation is complete. He’s a full-blown high school coach. This is his love, his passion.
“A blast,” Alstott said. “More than I could have ever expected. This is ‘playing fun.’ ”
Alstott never wanted to coach football, you know. Baseball — that’s what he loved to coach. He coached his son Griffin and all of his little buddies at Northwest in St. Petersburg. He couldn’t wait for doubleheaders and weekend tournaments.
Then Griffin decided in the sixth grade to play football.
“I told him I wasn’t coaching,” Alstott said.
“Then I got hoaxed into coaching,” Alstott said.
In 2012, when Griffin was headed into the eighth grade, Northside Christian offered Alstott its head coaching job. He thought about it, then decided to just be the offensive coordinator.
“I said, ‘If you don’t take this and be the head coach and do you it your way, you’ll never be successful,’ ” Alstott’s wife, Nicole, said. “And he took the head coaching job and has run wild with it.”
Well, not right away.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect,” Alstott said.
He lost his first game 59-0. The Mustangs didn’t win a game that year.
But that 0-10 year wasn’t a lost season. It might have been Alstott’s most critical.
“The first year really taught me everything about coaching,” Alstott said. “The ins and outs. It’s just not about the X’s and O’s. I learned everything from A to Z. Equipment. Painting the fields. Doing everything. There are a lot of hats. But my 0-10 really taught me the effort level that kids can put in. The kids put in a great effort. We might not have been the most skillful team, but we gave a lot of heart and we didn’t quit.”
The next year’s freshman class was led by Griffin, a quarterback.
“I still had a bunch of kids from that 0-10 year,” Alstott said. “My freshmen saw everything. We put those freshmen kids together with the older kids, and the older kids were still doing everything with high energy, great effort and showed these younger guys how to do things. These younger guys might be a little more skillful, but we put it all together and started to win.”
Well, not right away. The Mustangs went 3-7 in Alstott’s second season.
“But we were in a lot of games,” he said. “Then things started to click.”
More like explode.
They went 9-3 and 7-3 over the next two years, making the playoffs both seasons but getting knocked out in the first round.
Then came this season, Griffin’s senior year, and a 10-2 record that includes two playoff victories and a spot in tonight’s state semifinal at Hialeah Champagnat.
“Coaching (Griffin), it’s unexplainable,” Alstott said. “Over the years, it has been trying. No question about it. But, geez, when it’s all said and done, when that (last game) comes, it’s going to be emotional.”
But all this success, all this fun, all this emotion goes back to that 0-10 team, which reminds Alstott of another time in his career. That would be his first season in Tampa Bay, in 1996, when the Bucs went 6-10 under first-year coach Tony Dungy.
“The foundation,” Alstott called it.
And that set the stage for the greatest run in Bucs history, which included five postseason appearances in six seasons and the team’s only championship.
Alstott’s rookie NFL season and rookie season as a high school coach taught him how to have success.
“It’s not about what happens on the field,” he said. “It’s going to happen behind the scenes in the months nobody cares about. But you have to care about them. That’s what this has come down to.”
Many thought Alstott simply took the Northside job to coach his son. Griffin graduates in the spring and has verbally committed to Purdue, his dad’s alma mater. But Alstott has no plans to quit. He said he expects to be back at Northside next season.
“What else am I going to?” he said. “I love the game. I’d be lost if I didn’t have it.”
Alstott is not the stereotypical high school coach who yells and curses and grabs face masks. He’s calm, collected, fatherly.
“He loves it,” Nicole said. “It’s in his blood.”
Alstott’s two daughters are still at Northside. Hannah is in ninth grade, and Lexie is in seventh. And Alstott says that Griffin isn’t his only “son.”
“Do I have a little piece in the pie with my son? Sure,” he said. “But I have 30-plus other sons, too. That’s how it is, the relationship I have with all of them (on the team). It’s special.”
So, Alstott will keep at it. He hopes to win more games, get more of his players into college, maybe teach a few life lessons along the way.
Not bad for a guy who never wanted to be a high school coach.