Coach Bill Castle
Coach Bill Castle after winning his eighth state football championship for Lakeland High School | Polk County Public Schools

Legendary Lakeland High School Head Football Coach Bill Castle, whose team won the state championship for the eighth time last month, announced his retirement on Tuesday after 52 years at LHS, 47 of them as head coach.

“I’ve been at it 52 years, and it’s time,” Castle, 77, told The Ledger’s Roy Fuoco on Tuesday, adding he wanted to spend more time with his wife, Shelley, who retired from the school district. “I know there will be times that I’ll miss it, but I’ve been here a long time. It’s time to move on while my health is good.”

The accolades immediately started pouring in following the 5 p.m. announcement, which came from the LHS Athletic Department and was tweeted on the @LHSNaughts feed. By 9 p.m., the tweet had 123,300 views.

“Bill Castle is synonymous with Lakeland Football and winning,” the LHS Athletic Department statement said. “He leaves a monumental legacy in his wake as the Florida High School Athletic Association Coach of the Century.”

Castle led Lakeland to two USA national championships, eight FHSAA championships, and 29 district championships over his tenure. He won a championship in every decade he coached: 1986, 1996, 1999, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2018, and 2022. He holds 473 career wins.

Multiple people noted that his legacy isn’t just about game wins or state championships; for thousands of young men, being coached by Castle was an experience that changed the course of their lives and made Lakeland a better place.

By some estimates, Castle has coached about 3,000 students since he began in 1971. His hard work and dedication has meant football scholarships for many of his players, who might not otherwise have gone on to higher education. That, in turn, has meant livelihoods they might not have had.

“Coach Castle will be missed by many in our community,” said Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Frederick Heid. “The reason is more than his amazing number of state titles. He will be missed because he is a great man who worked to bring out the best in younger men. Coaches do more than develop athletic skills. They help create responsible young adults. It is for this reason that so many Polk County residents recall such fond memories of their time under Coach Castle’s guidance. And it is no surprise that over the years that he has had countless offers to coach elsewhere. Yet, he stayed because of his sincere dedication to our community and students.”

Jordan Jones, 32, said he is one of those players.  He was a linebacker on the championship team in 2008 and now teaches English and history at LHS, which allows him to work with Castle.

When he was in high school, Jones had a months-long falling out with his mother and he was staying with various friends.  Back then, lunch wasn’t free and he had no money to buy his own.  He said Castle, along with assistant coaches Dan Talbot and Jason Butler, would bring him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, tacos, and even dinner some days.

But for Jones, all these years later, it was the fact that Castle cared, that he would always ask how things were going with his mother.

“He remembered and cared about my 16, 17-year-old, 18-year-old self,” Jones said. “Literally paying money to take care of me, you know, paying out of their pockets to look after their guys, and that kind of just speaks to his character. I feel very honored to have played under this man who gave so many other young men an opportunity to make their way to college … He’s really changed the lives for so many young men.”

Jones said Castle was a male role model for him when he didn’t have one at home.

“He gave me discipline I didn’t have before him and he gave me an opportunity, which allowed me to go to college and build my life and my family,” Jones said. “So I think that institution of Lakeland football has really directly impacted so many young men that may not have made it you know. I mean, so many young men that could have been on the streets and getting into stuff that they shouldn’t have been.”

Castle also gave Jones confidence. The clock was winding down in the state semi-final game against Pensacola Pine Forest High back in 2006.

“He grabbed me by the mask towards the end of the game in the fourth quarter, and he trusted me and said, ‘Jordan, get it done,’” Jones recalled. “And I just felt, you know, extremely honored that he would kind of, he trusted me to, you know, to help to kind of lead the team, the defense especially, to get the win and we wind up ultimately winning the state.”

Talbot, who is now the PCPS athletic director, and Jones both said, only half joking, that they truly thought Castle would one day just die on the football field and then be buried there.

“I was hoping he’d die on, you know, just die on the field, doing what he loved and kept doing,” Jones said, smiling. “I was hoping my (3-year-old) son would play for him, but I mean, that’s a little unreasonable, but I just I can’t even imagine this day happening. People have talked about it, but it’s shocking to see and hear about.”

Talbot agreed.

“I mean the joke was really, like, we’re going to have to, you know, bury him out on the practice field and move the drills,” said Talbot, who coached under Castle from 2003 until 2014.

Talbot said Castle told his assistant coaches Tuesday morning when they returned from Christmas break that he would be leaving. They took Castle to lunch, but he sneaked and paid the bill before they knew it.

Talbot noted that on Tuesday afternoon, thousands of people were tweeting or texting the million-dollar question: Who will be the next LHS head football coach?

“I don’t know,” Talbot said. “I don’t think it’s really set in that he’s actually going to retire. Is this a 40-day, Tom Brady deal? We don’t know.  It’s one of those just let the dust settle and then, you know, put the job out there and see who applies.”

He said they are going to look in-house first.

“First and foremost, you know, obviously talk to … who on staff is interested in this position?” Talbot said. “I think it’s important that anytime that you have a successful program, you kind of want to — no pun intended — keep the ship going in the right direction. And so you when you’re successful, like Lakeland has been over the years, that we’ll see is there someone more or less qualified and wants to position within.”

Jones said he would like to see one of his coaches return to Lakeland – Jason Butler. Butler graduated from Bartow High and coached at LHS during the 2006 championship season.  He has gone on to coach a state championship team in Georgia. Jones is hoping someone picks up the phone and calls Butler. He also thinks former LHS and Florida State University player Kendrick Stewart would be a good fit.

Jone said Castle taught him how to take both the wins and the losses in life.

“Be being a part of Lakeland, you’re expected to win,” Jones said. “And I went to my college experience and I played some arena football, as well — I didn’t realize that what he instilled in me is not what other coaches may have instilled as strongly in other players. There’s an expectation when there’s a sacrifice in the dedication and he prepared me for that.”

He talked about Castle molding him into being a morning person with 6 a.m. summer workouts.

“When your friends are sleeping in and you’re literally sweating your butt off, throwing up, run up the bleachers, doing this activity called County Fair,” Jones said. “That stuff kind of prepared me for my post-high-school life.”

Jones said he doesn’t know if he would have gone to college without Castle’s coaching.

“I’m wondering if the opportunity would have even been there for me. Imagine Coach Castle doesn’t exist and you’re just in Lakeland, Florida,” Jones said.  “Are scouts from other schools coming to this area? To see players from all over? I think he’s kind of having an effect where, because of the name and, basically, the brand of Lakeland, as built on winning and, you know, expected success, I think it’s had almost a ripple effect for other schools. ‘Oh, I got to come to Lakeland now because you guys are putting out good players, you’re putting out you know, a winning team.’ I think it’s kind of had an effect on the entire area.”

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Kimberly C. Moore

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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