Ryan coach Joey Florence had a decision to make hours after his father died — hours before his football team played the biggest game in program history.
It was in Florence’s first season as head coach, when Ryan was a year removed from a 1-9 campaign. It was the first time Ryan had reached the postseason, and on the day of his father’s death, Florence decided he was going to do what his father did and what he knew best — coach.
Ryan went on to defeat Corsicana in the Class 4A quarterfinals, then lose in the state championship game, and Florence and the Raiders went on to win — and win often — over the next 14 years.
Many, including Florence, have considered the win over Corsicana the turning point of Ryan’s program. It was an indication of Florence’s character, a signal of where the program was heading.
“That was such a powerful moment for everybody. Anybody who didn’t think we had a chance to push all the way through,” Ryan assistant coach Adrian Eaglin said before slapping his desk, “they knew it right then. There was no doubt in anybody’s mind that we were capable of finishing the drill.”
This year marks Florence’s 20th year as a head coach, his 25th year in coaching overall and 14th as the head coach at Ryan. The native Texan can earn his 200th career victory if Ryan defeats Flower Mound Marcus on Friday.
If Florence picks up the milestone at any point this season, he will have averaged at least 10 wins per season as head coach — the number of games typically in a regular season.
When Florence arrived at Ryan in February 2000, he inherited a program that won one game the previous season. Ryan has never missed the playoffs with Florence as the head coach.
Florence has two state titles, five state championship game appearances and the respect of coaches across Texas. The longer Florence keeps coaching, the closer he inches toward G.A. Moore’s state record of 423 career victories.
Ask his peers, and Florence has cemented his status as one of the state’s best head coaches. The only question that lingers is when he will stop roaming the sidelines.
Ken Purcell said he will retire sometime this year after more than 16 years as the Denton school district’s athletic director. Purcell said he has talked to Florence about the upcoming vacancy. Florence said Tuesday that he has not been offered the job by the district and that he doesn’t know where he’s going to be after Ryan plays its final game of this season.
“I don’t know what his plans are for the future, and he and I have talked time to time about it,” Purcell said. “But we kind of put all those discussions on hold during the football season. He needs to be working on the Ryan Raiders right now, and I need to be doing what I’m doing.”
Until that time comes, Ryan and Florence aim for their third state championship — and a state final appearance that could be a bookend or just another milestone in an illustrious career.
Mickey and Joey
There’s a framed picture on a long window ledge in Florence’s office that has a young, smiling Florence in a track jacket. To his right is a man in a white jacket and white cowboy hat.
The man on the right, Mickey Florence, is responsible for the man on the left.
Mickey Florence used to take his young son to the fieldhouse at Rockwall, where Mickey was the head coach for four years. Because there were no projectors at home, the two would travel three to four miles and watch film on old tape reels.
Joey Florence was born to Mickey and Carolyn Florence in Kilgore in 1966. Florence was born into a family of Irish descent — immigrants who settled in Alabama and moved to East Texas and North Texas.
Joey Florence’s grandfather, D.R. Florence, was a farmer who strung electrical wire in Ruidoso, N.M. Florence’s grandfather didn’t graduate from college but moved to New Mexico, started his own business and died with about 12,000 head of cattle to his name.
D.R.’s son, Mickey, coached at Rockwall for four years and lost the 1972 Class 2A state final to Boling 20-0. The next year, Rockwall was bounced out of the playoffs in the regional round by Hooks and future Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims.
Mickey Florence became the Rockwall assistant superintendent after he finished coaching, and a multipurpose district facility bears his name.
Some of Joey Florence’s fondest memories of the family’s first head football coach include going to Texas Stadium the day after Thanksgiving and watching tripleheaders.
Growing up, Joey Florence wanted to go into law enforcement, but his uncle, a sheriff, told him he wasn’t tough enough. In college at Texas, Florence wanted to go to law school, but his grades told him that wasn’t going to happen.
“I found myself going to football games when I was down there — high school football games,” Florence said in his signature deep, drawn-out voice. “I actually enjoyed them more than I did the Longhorn games. I loved everything about Friday nights.
“I got to thinking about it. The people I respected were coaches. I love the game. Most educators that I’ve dealt with over the years were my kind of people.”
After Florence graduated, James Cameron — Mickey’s old friend and one of his son’s mentors — hired Florence at Sulphur Springs in 1989. Cameron was one of many coaches to buy equipment from Mickey at his sporting goods store in Rockwall, and he coached Joey at Rockwall until his junior season.
Florence was an assistant at Sulphur Springs for four years and joined Que Brittain at Marcus for one year before Cameron helped Florence get the head coaching job at Cooper, a Class 2A school.
Florence went 53-16 in six seasons at Cooper before he accepted the job at Ryan. He accepted the job on a Monday. That Friday, Mickey Florence told his son he had cancer.
Turning Ryan around
In the 10 years Purcell was an assistant coach at Plano, Plano defeated Denton each year in its season opener. Purcell, a friend of Mickey Florence and James Cameron, took over as the DISD athletic director in 1997.
“I felt like Denton’s always had great athletes,” Purcell said. “I just feel like there wasn’t a consistent philosophy across the board for athletics. I felt like that was one of the things that we needed — a consistent philosophy to achieve all that we can achieve with our talent.”
Florence arrived after Ryan went 1-9 under Kerry West.
“There was very little excitement about football in the community,” Eaglin said. “It was discouraging. I don’t feel like the kids felt like the community was behind them because we lost. We’d been losing. We were 1-9 in ’99. We struggled.”
Eaglin was on West’s staff and Florence’s hiring committee. Eaglin voted for Ronnie Mullins to get the head coaching job over Florence simply because he had gotten the chance to talk football strategy with Mullins and not with Florence.
Florence hired David Thomas, a fellow assistant at Sulphur Springs and Cooper, as the defensive coordinator and his first assistant coach at Ryan.
Florence went back and forth often to visit his father. Mickey Florence didn’t drink or smoke and didn’t find out he had esophageal cancer until a tumor got so big that he had trouble swallowing.
Mickey was given two months to live. But he saw Florence’s first playoff win at Ryan, a 34-23 decision against Waxahachie. The next week at the area final, Mickey wasn’t in the press box.
The morning of the 4A Division I state quarterfinal against Corsicana, Mickey Florence died at age 58. A few hours later, Florence and the Raiders defeated Corsicana 33-29 at Texas Stadium with a touchdown on the final play.
“A lot of people wouldn’t have gone to the game at all,” Thomas said. “But that says how much he cares about our kids and our coaches and our program.”
Ryan assistant coach Kris Slivocka said what’s made Florence successful through the years is the way he interacts with players, something that has been key to the amount of trophies and victories he’s accumulated.
“He relates to any age, whether it’s a freshman or a senior, he knows how to relate to the kids or [other] people,” Slivocka said. “They like him, and that makes it a lot easier. They’ll do anything for him because they like him. I think that’s a big part of coaching. Kids know that he cares about them. And I think in high school athletics, that’s half the battle.”
Success and outside interest
Ryan lost the 2000 Class 4A Division I final to Bay City, but that didn’t stop other programs from noticing what was going on in Denton.
Garland athletic director Homer Johnson, a well-known figure around the state with a Garland stadium named after him, called Florence and told him he was looking for a new coach at Garland. He told Florence to show up to a meeting at 7 a.m. and hung up the phone.
Florence accepted the Garland job on a Friday. Negotiations didn’t go too well, according to Florence, but he was given a set of keys and a cellphone.
Florence said that on the way back to Denton he had second thoughts and couldn’t leave Ryan. He called to tell Johnson, and Johnson replied, “Okie dokie.”
A month later, Johnson asked for the keys and phone back. Florence, too embarrassed to do it himself, sent an assistant to return the items.
Thirteen years later, Johnson laughs about it. Johnson, who knew Florence’s father well, said Mickey had a tremendous impact on his son.
“I think his father had a lot to do with him,” Johnson said. “I think he admired his father. I think it encouraged him to come along and be kind of like him. It might have gotten to where he’s better. I knew he was a really good coach and I really wanted him. But I understood it when he didn’t come, too. I wasn’t mad at him.”
Cliff Odenwald was working in the Garland school district when Johnson failed to lure Florence away from Ryan. Odenwald tried something similar, and the same thing happened.
Florence accepted the head coaching position at Plano East but recanted his tentative offer. Odenwald, now the associate athletic director in Garland, said both rejections were disappointing and Florence was a great fit for both jobs.
“He’s done it to me twice, but I don’t hold it against him,” Odenwald said. “I understand his love and passion for the kids at Denton Ryan, and it’s paid off well for him to stay there.”
A couple of years ago, Johnson drove past Garland’s Williams Stadium and saw Ryan warming up to face North Garland. He asked Florence to ease up once Ryan scored four touchdowns.
Ryan jumped out to a 29-0 lead before eight minutes had elapsed. Ryan’s starting quarterback threw the ball three times and its starting running back had three carries in Ryan’s 49-14 win.
James Battle, the quarterback for Florence’s first three seasons and two state titles, remembers when Florence used to come up to him on the sideline when Ryan was winning big. The coach turned his hand into a meaty fork and jabbed his star quarterback.
“He’d poke you in the side like a fork and he’d say, ‘Put a fork in you. You’re done,’” Battle said. “That meant you’re not playing the rest of the game. Go sit down and put your helmet down.”
While Battle was at Ryan, his father was in prison and his uncles were in prison, so Florence served as a father figure for the great high school quarterback. Battle said Florence’s teachings remain with him.
“Sometimes I get through my day because the stuff he was talking about on the field wasn’t just about on the field,” Battle said. “It was about life, you know what I mean? It didn’t have anything to do with just being on the football field and winning.”
But Florence knows plenty about winning. Three of his assistant coaches have been with him for all 14 seasons. His other assistants include a former player and former college assistant coaches.
Thomas, the man responsible for Ryan’s stalwart defense, echoed the feelings his fellow assistants had about working under Florence at Ryan.
“Ryan’s one of the most unique places I’ve ever been,” Thomas said. “That’s why I’m still here. That’s why I’ve been here for 14 years. I think it’s the best job in the state of Texas.”
Eaglin, the offensive line coach at Ryan, asked Florence during the interview process in 2000 what he was going to do to help his younger coaches grow professionally. Eaglin, who’s in his second stint at Ryan and his 10th year overall, said he received the answer over those 10 years.
“I’ve grown a lot professionally because I work for him,” Eaglin said. “I can’t imagine growing more professionally working for someone else. I really can’t. Because the things that guy emphasizes — it’s all about being a professional.”
Before each game and at halftime, in a tradition he can’t trace the origins of, Ryan athletic trainer Sharon Winn provides Florence with a Dr Pepper and a Snickers.
He used to eat only half of the candy bar and throw it away before former assistant coach and current Ryan principal Vernon Reeves urged him to stop throwing away a perfectly good Snickers bar. He gives the other half away now.
What Florence remembers most about his 100th win, a 39-6 victory over Birdville in 2003, was that one of the trainers had eaten his halftime Snickers. The coach was unusually fired up for a halftime speech in a blowout game.
“If I find out which one of you stole my Snickers, you’re all going to be running on Monday,” said Florence, which caused the locker room to erupt with laughter.
Florence is close to doubling that win total, but it’s unclear how many more wins he’ll have at Ryan or as a head coach. When his wife of 25 years, DeeDee, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer about six years ago and had surgery to remove the cancer, it changed his outlook on long-term plans.
“One thing it’s taught me is that I don’t really make plans,” Florence said. “I’m not really into the cliche of living life one day at a time, but I really am. One thing I’ve learned is that you can have all the plans you want but you really don’t know where you’re going to be the next year or so.”
Purcell, the DISD athletic director, will finish a career spanning 41 years in athletics. While Florence’s succession of Purcell is anything but finalized, it remains a viable option for the Ryan coach.
Florence’s success in Denton helped lure Guyer coach John Walsh in 2005. Walsh led Guyer to the Class 4A Division I championship last year and is a contender to repeat, and he said he can see his former district rival assuming the administrative role.
“He’s been in it long enough,” Walsh said. “He’s been in the leadership part of the business for some time now. But he knows what makes Denton ISD a good athletic job, a good coaching job, whether it’s football or any sport.”
But there are games left before then, more numbers to add to a book filled with stats attesting to Florence’s success.
There are more pictures on Florence’s window ledge, pictures of his adopted daughters, Hannah, 15, and Haley, 13. On the wall is a framed letter and two signed $2 bills from legendary Brownwood coach Gordon Wood, the coach with the second-most wins in state history.
“To Joey Florence, a great coach,” Wood inscribed in fading ink on one of the bills. Wood signed the other bill to Mickey, who had been dead for two years.
Florence said he doesn’t know how long he’s going be coaching. He just knows he’ll find a new profession when his current one stops being fun.
“I’ve been here since 6 a.m. this morning and I won’t get home until 10 o’clock tonight,” Florence said. “But I actually kind of like it. It’s kind of fun.”
BEN BABY can be reached at 940-566-6869 and via Twitter at @Ben_Baby.