WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Wrestling Hall of Famer
spent his final 16 years
serving as Eagles’ AD
BY TONY CASTRO
When school officially began Wednesday at F.W. Springstead’s campus, there was a notable exception prior to the initial attendance bell, the absence of Robert “Bob” Levija.
At the conclusion of 2015-16, the 65-year-old Levija retired from the Hernando County School District.
The Chicago, Illinois product is a graduate of the famed Mount Carmel High School, where he played football for the Caravan.
He attended Lake County Junior College and Chicago State in earning his bachelor’s degree in education, specializing in physical education and health. He followed up by earning his Masters degree at Winona State University in Minnesota.
He’s spent the past 37 years tending over flocks of student/athletes, including the last 16 years at Springstead’s venerable athletic director.
The former SHS Head Coach in wrestling (21 years) and football (5) was named to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2007 following a stellar career locally.
Besides juggernaut Brandon, the North Suncoast’s most famed athletic program, Springstead, linked its fame and recognition behind its mat program. Levija finished with a lifetime 313-29 won-lost slate.
Under Levija and a sea of assistant coaches, Spring Hill grapplers claimed 67 tournament titles – that’s more than every program in the county combined – hoisted 18 district championships, 14 conference titles, six regional crowns, pushed 109 grapplers to the FHSAA State Finals, claimed 40 state placers, enjoyed nine state individual champions and finished in the Top 10 ten times.
After a storied mat career, Levija succeeded Pat McCoy in 2000 as the school’s athletic director under Principal Dot Dodge. McCoy had served as AD for two seasons.
Levija’s AD successes
Looking back, Levija identified his No. 1 priority when he took over the reins. Under his tutelage, the Mariner Boulevard’s female athletic programs did a 360-degree turn.
“Our girls programs were awful,” explained Levija. “We implemented a different philosophy. We weren’t just ‘coaching girls’ we were coaching female athletes. We tried to hire the best coaches we could. The girls started buying in. They’d lift weights and train during the summer, just like the guys do.”
“Why the success? Our coaches were looking after each other,” added Levija. “That was our attempt to get everyone on the same page. We still haven’t won a (female) state title, but we’re so much more competitive than we were in the past.”
Another tremendous accomplishment was F.W. Springstead earning the FHSAA’s Rozelle Award for Sportsmanship following the 2008-09 season.
“That took a team and community effort,” insisted Levija. “Improving our girls’ programs was tremendous, but winning the Rozelle Award I think meant more to me and Ms. (Susan) Duval (the former SHS principal) than anything else.”
A third significant achievement was Springstead returning home with back-to-back-to-back Class 2A state championships in wrestling in 2011-13 under Head Coaches Eric Swensen and Sal Basile.
To compare the feat, the remainder of the Hernando County athletic programs have combined for one state crown over the past 16 years.
According to Levija, the backbone of the Eagles’ success has been linked to their personnel hires.
Having Swensen and Basile coach together, for example, the two fed of each others’ strengths.
“We’ve had some hiccups in the past,” revealed Levija, without naming names. “And we haven’t been perfect. But the key is to have high standards in place and coaches that will do the right things.
“I’m probably just as happy that we didn’t cheat,” said Levija, without pointing fingers to any other state programs. “There have been some tough losses, but that’s when you have to be a good loser.”
The Levija management style
Levija readily admits he instilled in his young mentors the risk management strategies he absorbed.
Injuries, he admits, are part of the process. Coaches must know how to handle them and know what to do on an individual case basis.
“You’ve got to protect yourself and your kids,” detailed Levija. “Learning CPR and first aid is a must.”
Another huge plus is taking continuing education courses.
“I was ahead of the curve with our 20-hour (coaching) classes,” said Levija. “This year, they’ve (county) done away with it. They’ve switched to some small online courses.”
Levija encouraged all athletic directors to not only be a member but absorb the principles exposed by the FIAAA (Florida Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association).
“The FIAAA made me a better AD,” acknowledged Levija. “Every Florida AD is a member, but many don’t take advantage of what it has to offer. It really makes you aware of the bigger picture.
“…My emergency procedures (a fire, a loss of power, a bomb threat, a missing child during a game) came as a direct result from another AD,” said Levija, one of only four master certified Athletic Directors in Florida. “How would you deal with this type of crisis? Coming from other experienced people, this type of knowledge has helped me to no end.”
Looking back at chronic AD issues
Spanning his 16-year window, Levija explained he had no regrets.
“There were things out of my control that I couldn’t accomplish,” he noted. “I would’ve loved to have had a (athletic) trainer at every event. I did what I could, but ultimately that decision was out of my control.
“Budget-wise, we had no money, so we’ve had to dress the school up as best we could with a coat of paint here and there,” he said. “For years, we prided ourselves in having a hospitality room-atmosphere like we had in wrestling during football game and other tournaments. People, in general, spruce up their house when company comes over, right? It’s the same idea.
“I instructed our coaches to make sure that when they left other schools’ locker rooms that they leave them in pristine conditions,” he added. “We’ve had some people leave our place trashed. You want to leave it better than we you got there.”
Levija wasn’t real keen on having local teams (except football) not take a bus together to athletic events.
“Riding a bus is a safer form of transportation,“ noted Levija. “Why guess at whether a player or players are coming when you’re standing outside Hernando’s gym. But in the sign of the times, there’s no transportation money.”
Due to limited budgets even security has a price tag.
“We don’t have the county funding for police protection like we had in the past,” said Levija. “Now, we have a limited police presence during football games and some in-county basketball games. Right now, due to budgetary dollars we’re taking a chance with security.”
The biggest issue with Hernando County ADs, admitted Levija, is the work load.
“The biggest problem is the county requiring the ADs to do so much,” Levija said. “It’s really tough to teach a full course load and do the AD job fulltime. I really think the county hierarchy doesn’t get it. There’s a ton of responsibility here.
“Getting (extra) paid help in any way has gone on deaf ears.”
Levija explained how he manipulated the current system by utilizing aids.
“Other schools districts understand what ADs go through on a daily and yearly basis and get them help,” said Levija. “It’s a different approach here. You do what you have to do get through.“
He also will not miss telling student/athletes with say, a 1.99 grade point average, they can’t play.
“That’s the toughest thing about this job,” said Levija. “Some kids start off poorly and then rally. But a 1.99 GPA means you can’t play; it‘s not a 2.0.”
Levija, a quadruple heart bypass survivor from 2009, is counting his new-found freedom.
“After 37 years of blood, sweat and tears at Springstead, the loads of pressure are off of me,” emphasized Levija. “I feel great. I’m not worried about this or that report anywhere.
“I do miss the competition and seeing how our teams are attempting to improve,“ he added. “There was a while there when I was just hoping our girls basketball team would just reach double digits. And last year, they reached regionals. We’ve certainly come a long way.”
The Chicago native took a moment to identify a handful of successful hires, which served as the epicenter of all vibrant programs on the Mariner Boulevard campus.
“Joel Myers is leaving proof of a tremendous hire,” acknowledged Levija. “He amazed me in all the things he did in football, cross country and track. He had like 10 girls sign scholarships. He made the girls take pride in their efforts.”
“Picking Swensen and Sal (Basile) to coach wrestling was a no-brainer. Those two worked so well together,” explained Levija.
But Levija didn’t identify the two mat mentors as his best hire, he gave that distinction to Pat Kelly.
Kelly guided the 31-1 Eagles to the FHSAA Finals in 2010, losing in the state championship in Lakeland to Cocoa High.
“My best hire was Kelly,” said Levija. “We became fast friends. He made me excited about basketball.”
The long-time SHS mentor also admitted the coach he most admired was Bill Vonada.
Levija didn’t hire Vonada, Hernando County’s longest tenured and winningest mentor, as his head football coach after McCoy resigned after a lopsided 54-7 loss to Central at the Bears’ Den in 1998.
“Bill (Vonada) isn’t just a coach, he’s a standup person. A person with backbone and man of character,” noted Levija. “He’s the type of coach I wish everyone could be.”
Levija also lauded the selection of Dustin Kupcik as his successor.
“Sure, there’s a learning curve for him,” revealed Levija. “But he’s technically smarter than I ever was. He’s gonna learn and learn fast about the ins and outs of being an AD. His experience here will help.
“He’s never been a head coach before, so he’s never lost a game,” chuckled Levija. “He’ll see things in a different light. Over the last few years he was our best PE teacher.
“What I admire most is he’s trying to do things the right way,” added Levija. “I advised him to maintain his enthusiasm for the job and stay prepared for the unexpected because that’s all coming.”
On his legacy, “I’d like to be remembered for what I did with the wrestling program and how I applied that success as an AD to the other programs.” noted Levija. “It’s important to me to be known as a person with high integrity who did things the right way. I felt I accomplished as much as I could.”
Levija’s long-time contemporary, Hernando High’s Ernie Chatman, shared with this reporter that the only coach he looked up locally to was Coach Levija.
When asked why, Chatman responded, “People think that winning is the ultimate goal. It’s not. Levija’s teams were consistent. That’s the key. They won over a longer period of time than anyone else ever around here. That all reflects back on the coaching.”
Before toiling in his backyard Levija shared his current status.
“Whatever it is, it can wait till tomorrow,” smiled Levija. “There’s no sense of urgency like I had for so many years at Springstead. I took my job personally. Now, I don’t have to worry about who got hurt yesterday and who’s lining the field on Friday.
“…Officially, I’ve been retired for a week and I’m kinda enjoying it.”
By the Numbers: Springstead’s
District Championships (1976-2016)
– Compiled by TONY CASTRO
Boys Cross Country
Girls Cross Country
Boys Track and Field
Girls Track and Field
By the Numbers: Springstead’s
State Championships (2000-16)
– Compiled by TONY CASTRO
Brooksville-Nature Coast Technical
Brooksville-Hernando Christian Academy