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Champions By Design: The Story of Naples High School Football

Inside the Golden Eagles' 2015 season with Coach Bill Kramer.



Coach Bill Kramer celebrates with his team after winning the 2016 regional championship.

 

Coach Bill Kramer was reading his morning paper one day when he stopped on a quote. Roy Terry, then a principal at Palmetto Ridge High School (and now a school board member), made an offhand remark to the Naples Daily News in regard to the Naples High School football team’s success. Essentially, Terry was quoted as saying winning “has a lot to do with cycles.”

It makes sense, especially considering Terry was once a football coach himself. Success is difficult to maintain in high school football. You can’t draft or (legally) recruit players. You’re pretty much stuck with the students in your enrollment area. Thus, success is largely determined by geography. 

But, wait.

What about the coach?

“If things go in cycles,” Kramer remembers thinking, “am I really all that relevant?”

The quote became motivation for Kramer, the type of bulletin-board material highly competitive people remember, even if it wasn’t a slight, to remind them there are doubters.

Kramer, by far, is the most accomplished coach in the 66 years of the Naples High football program. He’s won 175 games since taking over in 1998. The next most successful coach won only 37 in five seasons (by the way, that coach is Roy Terry.) Naples won a state title in 2001, made it to the finals in 2003 and won it again in 2007. In 2015, Kramer was inducted to the Florida Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

He helped rescue Naples High from the doldrums and did it against teams that featured some of the best high school talent in the nation. So, how big of an impact can a coach have on a program, on his players? Can a coach be enough to break that cycle?

We followed the Golden Eagle football team during its 2015 football season, getting a look inside to see just what makes the program so successful and how much influence one coach can have.

Quarterback Kieran DiGiorno hands off to Carlin Fils-Aime.

 

Coach Kramer doesn’t like homecoming week. Too many distractions. You’ve got the annual celebration the Wednesday evening before and all the pomp and circumstance that lead up to the dance Saturday. He’s got players on the homecoming court, including star running back Carlin Fils-Aime. 

The homecoming game is a big deal no matter what. But this year, the school is scheduled to play cross-town rival and fellow regional powerhouse Palmetto Ridge. So, the game is huge.

Kramer is in the coach’s office across from the locker rooms. A big conference table is in the center. A few motivational posters are plastered on the walls. Each year the coaches create a sign: “Road to State: One Step at a Time.” Each game on the schedule is listed in the form of stairs. Black tape sticks over every game except for the current week’s game—the physical manifestation of the one-game-at-time mentality. Aside from the current year’s sign, only three others remain up. Kramer hung onto the signs from ’01, ’03, ’07. The others were thrown away.

Coach is his usual ball of energy. He’s calm to the extent a man with a million things on his mind can be calm. There’s a procedure to things in Naples football, a rigid schedule that goes into each week. It must run like an intricate machine.

On this particular day, the players are getting dressed up for homecoming photos. That means guys are coming in looking for a belt or some other missing piece of clothing. Coach is amiable with his players, motioning or calling them in as they pass by the glass windows on the office. He calls most “bro” or some derivation thereof—it’s casual, implies a connection. He asks how the center is holding up after hurting his hand (luckily not his snapping hand). This day, Kramer is fighting a mild panic because one player is nowhere to be found at school. He’s called the player’s cell, texted. He’s a little distracted until he finally gets a text back—the kid had just gone for his driving test. False alarm.

Carlin comes in decked out in a black shirt and pants with a white bow tie and vest. Kramer gives him a high five after he’s looked him over, then helps roll up his sleeves, showing the University of Tennessee gel bands around his wrists, Carlin’s school of choice.

The program is graduating 20 seniors this year. That’s almost all of his starting offense and defense. It’s an experienced team that’s starting to gel at the right time. He doesn’t like to rank, but this year’s team is about as strong and as athletic as he’s ever coached.

Their only loss so far is one early to American Heritage School in Delray, another Florida powerhouse. His team didn’t quite have their legs under them yet. But they got a valuable lesson. If you want to win, he tells his team, you have to play at that level.

“You learn more from the sting of a loss than from the bliss of a win,” he says afterward. “The pain of losing is way more intense than the joy of winning.”

 

Naples High has a system. It’s a process that’s been reworked and refined so much over Kramer’s years that it runs with the efficiency of an iPhone. The comparison makes some sense because Kramer has a graduate degree in computer science. He got it in 1987 in part, he says, because he saw how computers were transforming the world—and he wanted to understand this new power. It’s true that he oversees a system in place that has allowed for a methodical analysis of players and teams. Coaches track speed and strength of players, noting if they’re getting faster and stronger. Practices are tightly structured, videotaped and broken down. The goal: Get better every day. It’s helped that his two top assistant coaches—Sam Dollar and Paul Horne, both with legitimate head coaching skills in their own right—have been there since day one with Kramer. But to understand Naples football, you have to look past just one week or one season. From the time a player puts on a jersey for the freshman and then junior varsity teams, he’s become part of the system. A similar-style offense and defense is run at all levels, so by the time that player has the fortune of putting on the varsity jersey, he’s already familiar with the schemes. 

Kramer with his quarterback, Kieran DiGiorno.

Take quarterback Kieran DiGiorno, for example. His two older brothers played for Kramer. He went to Kramer’s annual summer camps when he was younger. He rose through the ranks in high school. And now his time is finally here.

Kieran has come a long way since his first loss. He’s in his first year as a starting quarterback for the team, waiting for his chance behind the talented upperclassmen.

He credits Kramer for helping him improve as the season went on. Coach would take him aside and go over the small things relentlessly, so he didn’t have to think about them, like the three-step drop, so it becomes muscle memory during the game. “He’s very real in everything he does,” Kieran says of Kramer. “He’ll let you know the expectations, then help you try to achieve it.”

 

Practice the Wednesday before game day doesn’t really get going until the PA system starts pumping Top 40 hip-hop (radio edit, of course).

Kramer has a playful air about him. One minute he’s demonstrating with a wide receiver how to position his body to catch the ball. The next, he’s joking, bobbing his head with the beat to the delight of the teenagers. The next, he’s got some tongue-in-cheek advice gleaned from Road House that he’s shouting across the field: “Pain don’t hurt!”

During practice, the assistants work closely with their units. Kramer is observing, a hoarse shout rising above the beats at certain points. A young receiver dives over a falling defensive back to make a catch. Coach lets out a holler, dashes over and drums on his helmet with his palms, more excited than the kid is.

This day, Kieran is having difficulty. He’s pitched two interceptions. Coach pulls him aside. His drop steps are off, throwing his timing.

Kramer shouts encouragements. But he whispers corrections. The intention: This isn’t for everyone else.

The practices come off as competitive, yet laid-back. The players have fun, yet know this is also a time to be serious. Kramer likes that easygoing feeling. Loose is fast. Tight is slow, he says. He’s not the coach who will get into your face and shout. Players shouldn’t be on edge.

So, what does provoke him? Selfishness—a player putting himself over the team—he says.

Juno Prodhomm learned that the hard way. A quarterback on the ’07 championship team, he would get cocky from time to time. One particular night, he and a friend attended a girls’ volleyball match against rival Palmetto Ridge. He mouthed off to some opposing players and ended up getting kicked out. Coach found out. “I must have had to do 2,000 up-downs,” he says now. “I learned my lesson.”

Carlin Fils-Aime slips a tackle. Fils-Aime now plays for the University of Tennessee.

 

The on-field system is just part of it. When Kramer talks about culture, it’s not just in an athletic sense but also an academic sense. He’s devised a study plan, drawn from his days working at Princeton Review. It comes on a sheet that he prints out for students—but not before they have to write it down to help them retain it in their memory: Study at least one hour per day, six days a week; don’t spend more than 5 minutes on a question you don’t understand; make flashcards; always be reading.

He says he wants good from his players. All coaches say that. But it’s hard not to believe it coming from Kramer. This is a guy who got another graduate degree (this one in counseling) so he could help his disadvantaged students. This is a guy who invites a core of players every Monday to eat dinner with his family. Typically, they’ll get something from Moe’s, or Buffalo Wild Wings, or a pizza joint, or pasta. His wife, Sue, bakes. It’s team bonding. It’s also an example: This is what a family looks like; this is how a husband treats his wife, his children.

What he wants to see is one of his players 20 years down the road with a wife and family, a good career, a presence in the community. A good man.

“High school football is the best tool I know of to change or create habits and lifestyles,” he says.

 

Kramer has made what he calls two irrational decisions in his life. The first: hopping a bus in Arizona to go enroll in Liberty University in Virginia. When he boarded that bus, he was at a low point in his life. Football had been his passion, but it didn’t prove to be the savior he thought it could be.

Bill Kramer in his playing days.

He grew up for the most part in Arizona. His father had abandoned the family when he was a baby. His mother remarried, but his stepfather “didn’t like me very much,” as he says, to put it mildly. He looked to get out of the house anytime he could. He went to the library and read anything he could. He’d attend church and found comfort there he couldn’t at home.

As he grew older, he became close to his grandfather, a World War II veteran who worked in a tire shop, and his uncle Rick, a Vietnam veteran. They showed him responsibility and discipline and gave him the proper attention his father or stepfather didn’t.

Once in Yuma High School (nicknamed the “criminals” for the fact that classes once had to be held in a prison after the school building burnt down), he got into whatever sports he could get into—basketball, football, track. He excelled at football. He was undersized, but physical, not afraid to show or receive aggression.

He went to Arizona Western University to play football but got hurt in training camp. Without football, he lost his way. He dropped out. He thought he might be able to transfer to University of Arizona, but admissions took a look at his transcripts and declined.

Liberty University was a Christian school his grandmother knew in Virginia. He boarded that bus with $30 in his pocket, hoping he could right his future.

He walked onto the football team as a receiver. By his second semester, he had a scholarship. He met a woman his junior year. Sue would become his wife.

The irrational decision turned out to be one of the best he ever made.

The second irrational decision: leaving a strong program in Miami to take a job at Naples High School.

 

“There are only two kinds of people in the world: Golden Eagles, and those who want to be Golden Eagles.”

 

On the Friday before homecoming, the team is together. At 4 p.m. they get a meal cooked by his wife and a few other moms and coaches’ wives. Kids then go to a study room or a video game room. All is quiet. And then not.

The hype surrounding the homecoming game turned out to be overblown. The Eagles start off with a 12-play drive for a score. They don’t let up. By halftime, it’s 35-0.

Kramer calmly roams the sidelines; the largest displays of emotion are the fist bumps he gives the team as they jog off the field. During the games, he’s subdued: never too high, never too low.

Carlin Fils-Aime is named homecoming king at halftime then rushes for another touchdown in the second half. Naples wins 42-7.

As the seconds tick down, a phrase echoes out over the loud speakers that Kramer himself announces each morning to start off the school day.

“There are only two kinds of people in the world: Golden Eagles, and those who want to be Golden Eagles.”

 

Kramer had turned down the job at Naples several times. At the time, he was the head coach at American High School in Miami. He had started at next to nothing to get there. After graduation, he had followed Sue down to Miami without much except the knowledge that he wanted to teach and coach. He made money by driving a heavy roller over asphalt in Fort Lauderdale. When rain would cancel a day’s work, he’d go to high schools to submit applications. He landed a job as an assistant coach at American. In 1995, he was promoted to head coach.

Across the state, Naples’ football program had hit a rough patch, record-wise. Its administrators were looking for a big hire to turn the program around. Kramer was the head of a successful program at the nation’s second-largest school. He was on a path that could lead to a college coaching job.

The Kramer family with daughters Courtney, Cassie, Katie and Kellie.

Moving didn’t make sense … did it? Naples had bad facilities, a losing tradition for a decade. It was in a place where Kramer and his wife didn’t really know anyone. The pay was worse, and housing was expensive. No way; just didn’t make sense. … But it was in a nice area to raise a family. And, it’d be his chance to build a program up from the ground. It would be a challenge. But it’d take uprooting his wife and three young daughters. That was that. He was going to decline the offer once again.

But then his wife asked one night, “Do you feel peace with the decision?”

He said, “Do you?”

She said, “No.”

They prayed.

He took the job.

 

The Golden Eagles beat their last two opponents, winning another district title and advancing into the playoffs on a roll. By this time, talk is that this is one of the all-time great Naples teams. But 2004 was supposed to be great, too. That team got upset in the first round.

This year is different. The Eagles sail through to the semi-finals, where they travel across the state to play Miami Central, the three-time defending champions.

The Eagles are overmatched. Miami Central has too much talent. The final score is 41-21.

Kieran felt they played hard, gave it their all. They lived up to the Eagle way. But, when you get down to it, it’s a shock. The season is suddenly over. There’s so much emotion, excitement and then—nothing. He remembers the silence that filled the locker room after and the thought that he and his fellow seniors will never put on an Eagle football jersey again.

 

Kramer has had offers to coach elsewhere, of course. He’s considered what it would take for him to leave what he’s built and uproot his family. When he makes decisions like these, he prays.

He’s proud of his faith. He’s head of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Naples High. But he’s aware of the “holier than thou” perception that can come about by talking too much about religion in public. So it’s there, with him in moments public and private, as it has been since he was a boy trying to find peace in that Baptist church in Arizona.

 

Seven Naples players commit to play football in college on national signing day. (When it’s all said and done, 15 football players will have signed on to continue playing at the next level.) Carlin Fils-Aime, along with teammate Tyler Byrd, signs with Tennessee. After a busy morning, Kramer is in his football office again. He’s proud to point out that 90 percent go to college. Just like the rest of his processes, getting into a college is years in the making. He works with players to determine the top five or 10 schools they’d like to play at. He then targets the schools, marking sure video gets into the right hands. Former player Juno Prudhomm remembers Kramer asking him freshmen year what D1 school he’d like to play at, even before the kid himself had seriously thought about it. Prudhomm went on to play at Middle Tennessee State, graduated and now sells yachts in Miami. He recently came back to help at Kramer’s summer football camp, along with former teammate Carlos Hyde, now a running back with the San Francisco 49ers. 

Kramer advises standout wide receiver and defensive back Tyler Byrd.

Kramer tells his players: “Don’t get used by football. Don’t get caught in its fleeting glory.” Remember, true success is becoming a good person.

Kieran will attend Notre Dame. He won’t be playing football. Kramer has a touch of wistfulness in his voice when he says his quarterback could have gone to an Ivy League school and scored a spot on a roster. Kieran will study engineering. It was time to put football aside and focus on the next phase of his life.

He recalls his playing days, suddenly in the rear view: “This has been about more than just football. It’s not what type of player you are; it’s the type of man you’d become.”

Sound familiar?

Kramer, meanwhile, has tasks on hand. First off, he’s needs to make sure all the locks to the lockers are returned. Then, it’s on to next season. It’s a fresh varsity team next fall. Only five starters will return. But expectations will be high. Expectations are always high.

Like always, Naples kicks off the next season with a spring game, a friendly exhibition. Naples welcomed North Miami to Staver Field in May. The Eagles won—50-13. A new season begins, and once again, Kramer gets a chance to prove just how much one coach can impact one team.

 

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