Once again, in 2020, I got it backwards…
When my friend Jeff Tilton told me shortly after the 2019 football season that he would be retiring after 40 years at the Ithaca Housing Authority and moving to Florida, I was simultaneously happy and sad. I was happy that Jeff (and his wife, Kim) would be realizing a longtime dream, but sad for the local football community.
After graduating from Ithaca High in 1981, Jeff coached football at various levels for 35 years. He was among those who breathed life into many struggling programs (like Newfield and Ithaca High). He helped a lot of kids attain a sense of achievement and belonging, and he coached at many different age levels. In fact, his last stint before moving to Florida involved coaching college football players at Cornell’s Sprint Football program.
When Jeff moved, I assumed that it would be tough for him to step away from coaching while his friends and fellow coaches here in Ithaca would stay in the game. It would be difficult, I assumed, for a northern transplant to latch on with a coaching staff in a state with such passion and tradition woven into the football culture. But, as stated, I got it backwards. While Jeff’s Ithaca buddies are sitting out the season, he is the defensive line coach at Lakewood Ranch, and the Mustangs are 4-2 and looking toward the playoffs.
We caught up by phone, and Jeff sounded relaxed after a two-and-a-half-mile walk on a 72-degree Florida morning. Asked if he is enjoying retirement, he said: “I’m working some hours at a golf course, I’m substitute teaching, I’m enjoying it.”
When I asked Jeff if he thought he’d be coaching this fall after arriving in Florida in May, he replied, “I didn’t think anyone would be coaching anywhere.” He added, “I decided to send my resume to six high schools within a 20-mile radius, and I had my eye on a local school that just opened last year and was fielding their first varsity team.” Football started three weeks late, and while he was waiting to hear from the new school, Jeff got a call from the defensive coordinator at Lakewood Ranch, who apparently liked what he heard. The D.C. brought the head coach into the loop; Jeff met with both of them and was hired as the defensive line coach.
In some ways, football is football, and a coach with 35 years under his belt can step in, read a playbook, take a look at his troops and get things moving. In other ways, Florida football is different than Ithaca football, and Tilton enjoys being the old dog learning new tricks. “Some of the coaches here have major college and even NFL coaching experience,” Jeff offered. “I am really learning a lot.”
As for the players, he said, “There are major Division I players everywhere, and there is a big difference in the size and the skill level.” The high schools are huge by comparison, and Jeff said, “There are 2,200 students where I am, and this year they are limiting the crowd size (and mandating masks), but in normal years the stadiums can draw big crowds, the music is amazing, there is great community support… it’s like a college atmosphere.”
I asked Jeff to describe some of the adjustments he is making after spending so many years working with players and coaches he had known for a long time. He said, “It reminds me of when I went to work with the Sprint program at Cornell. I knew the coaches, but I didn’t know any of the players.” He added, “When I worked at smaller programs, I worked on both sides of the ball. Here, I’m on the defensive side, and I don’t really interact with the offense.”
While he is indeed the proverbial new kid on the block, Tilton is laying the groundwork to be among those who help to strengthen yet another program, toiling away from the crowds and the shimmering Friday night lights. “Every Saturday,” Jeff told me, “we work with the junior varsity players, so that’s another 65 kids I am getting to know.”
I thanked mi old amigo for sharing this part of his journey, and I told him I hope he gets to be retired for as long as he worked. Jeff did the math, laughed and said, “Yeah… that’s what I’m hoping for too.”