Wayne Belger has had two months to get adjusted to being handed the football torch at The Bolles School from his longtime mentor and friend, Corky Rogers. Yet he’s reluctant to move eight feet away from his usual office seat inside the weight room for the past 28 seasons.
“I can’t make myself sit over in that chair,” said Belger, referring to the place the legendary former Bolles coach always occupied. “It’s still a little weird [Rogers] not being here.”
But not as weird for Bolles’ program than if anybody else besides Belger, particularly an outsider, had been summoned to succeed Rogers, the winningest prep football coach in Florida history with a 45-year record of 465-84-1.
With Belger staying on board, Bolles has a better fighting chance to remain a state power. Elevating Rogers’ play-calling confidante to head coach keeps the Bolles staff almost entirely intact, assuring the players that change in the program’s structure would be minimal, except for one obvious detail.
“I’m not much of a screamer, though I do have my moments,” said Belger. “The kids always knew what day it was at practice because I would scream on Tuesday, and Corky did it on Wednesday. We got to find another yeller.”
Rogers’ farewell tour at Bolles continued Thursday night when he was honored after an 11-8 home jamboree win over Mandarin, his first time in a non-coaching game capacity since the 1968 season. Health issues and lack of energy forced him off the sideline, though he still shows up once a week or so to watch practice and renew acquaintances.
“I really miss being with the kids,” Rogers said.
But since Bolles football must go on without a legend running the show, it might as well be with Rogers’ most trusted assistant calling the shots.
Nobody is more familiar with the nuances, mindset and wing-T philosophy of Rogers than his 62-year-old sidekick. Any changes you see with Bolles in 2017 — other than the fact it has no quarterback, receiver or running back returning with meaningful game experience – will be more subtle than a full-fledged overhaul.
“Coach Belger will keep the same intensity level,” said senior center Cody Mercer, who is headed to the Air Force Academy. “Practice will be hell. That’s just the way they want it, for it to be way harder than the games.
“They have that bond together, probably thinking the same thing when it comes to play-calling. They’re usually on the same page.”
Rogers to Belger is the prep football version of replacing Socrates with Plato. Belger has been at Rogers’ side for 40 years, since he was hired as a jayvee coach at Lee in 1977 after graduating from Gardner-Webb. And that doesn’t count the 1972 season, Rogers’ first season at Lee, when Belger was his starting quarterback.
Belger has served primarily as Rogers’ offensive line coach since the mid-1980s, but every play-call was often a collaboration of the offensive game plan the two put together. It seemed inevitable Belger would move on to become a head coach elsewhere, but once he followed Rogers to Bolles in 1989, the idea of separating lost its appeal.
“Why [Belger] didn’t go, I don’t know, but I’m glad he didn’t [leave],” Rogers said. “It’s fun to work with people you don’t have to tell what to do. Our work habits were similar.”
The truth is, Belger enjoyed the cohesiveness among his coaching colleagues and winning 10 state championships so much, leaving never really entered his mind. The same can be said of other Bolles longtime assistants who remain on staff with Belger, including defensive coordinator Mike Barrett (at the school since 1975), defensive line coach Rich Thomann and kicking coach Allan Leavitt, all of whom logged 20-plus years under Rogers.
Belger’s promotion ensured the core band would stay together. The question now becomes this: Without the same bandleader, can the Bulldogs be anywhere near as dominant, especially as Bolles moves up to Class 5A, joining a superpower district that includes four-time defending 3A state champion Trinity Christian and 5A runnerup Ponte Vedra High?
Rogers pushed hard for Belger to succeed him, telling administrators the idea of forming a search committee to identify the next coach was “ridiculous.” He saw no point in compounding the upheaval by hiring an outsider, which would have meant a major staff overhaul.
Bolles rightly decided that Belger’s four decades of loyalty to Rogers had earned him the opportunity to see if the student could carry on the teacher’s tradition of excellence.
There’s no guarantee state championships are going to follow, but one thing is certain: The work ethic and demands of Corky Rogers will carry on.
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