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Riverview High, local football communities remember John Sprague

The respected Rams coach, who held a 209-103 record over 30 seasons, died Nov. 17 at age 75.

John Sprague ended his 30-year head coaching career at Riverview with a 209-103 record.
John Sprague ended his 30-year head coaching career at Riverview with a 209-103 record.
File photo
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In 2004, the Riverview High football team played its first game against another school called Riverview High, located in an unincorporated area known as Riverview in Hillsborough County. 

The game was on the road. 

The Riverview Sharks, as the other school is known, had been around for six seasons and were considered an upstart program. It was a game the Rams and Head Coach John Sprague badly wanted to win. 

Con Nicholas, Sprague's longtime defensive coordinator, said Sprague had an unusual way of getting his team fired up for that game. 

"The pep talk was basically, 'Those guys stole our name!'" Nicholas said with a laugh. "'Now you go out there and kick their ass and you let them know who the real Riverview is.' And of course, (the coaches) are all looking at each other like, 'Well, it is the name of their town. It's not like they actually stole it.' But the team ran out there yelling and screaming and ready to prove who the real Riverview was." 

The Rams won the game, 21-10. Of course they did. Who could lose after a speech like that?

Sprague carried that same magnetic personality with him throughout his life, something that endeared him to Riverview High and the Sarasota football community at large. Sprague was a one-of-one, someone whose gruff, old-school exterior belied the caring persona underneath.

John Sprague poses with Rams quarterback Tater Williams, then a Riverview junior, in 2011 at a skills demonstration.
File photo

Sprague, 75, died Nov. 17. He coached the Rams football team for 30 years starting in 1981, compiling a 209-103 record. His teams won 11 district titles and made four Final Four appearances. Twice, the Rams reached the state championship game under his watch. He also served as the school's athletic director and later coached golf for the Rams — a sport he loved so much, he later moved beyond Riverview to coach it, getting involved with the Booker Middle School girls golf team, which was put together by his friend and former Riverview athletic director Jim Ward. His legacy will never be forgotten: On Oct. 27, the Rams officially changed the name of their football field to John Sprague Field at the Ram Bowl. 

Not that anyone who ever met Sprague could forget him. As former Rams linebacker Jon Haskins put it, all it took was talking to him for 30 seconds to know what he was all about. Sprague told things like they were, Haskins said, and was fiercely loyal to everyone in the program. If you were a Ram, you were family. He was also the life of the party everywhere he went. Con Nicholas, who served as Sprague's longtime defensive coordinator, said Sprague could often be found in the school's weight room. Helping players with their reps? Nope — he was huddled in the corner, telling them jokes and showing them card tricks, which they adored.

But it was more than Sprague's sense of fun that made him a legendary figure. It was what he did for his players and his community. Haskins, now an assistant coach at Cardinal Mooney High, played college football at Stanford University. During Haskins' senior season at Riverview, he said, there was a day when 20-25 college coaches were on hand to see him and the Rams scrimmage — a rarity at the time, when it was less practical for coaches to make trips to specific schools. The next year, Haskins' Stanford coaches told him they were going back to scout Riverview some more. 

"I was like, 'Why? We don't have that type of kid this year," Haskins said. "They said, 'Oh, no. We just want to see your coach.' That's when I got it. It was genius. Sprague could have been a stand-up comedian, so these coaches would go and come back with good stories (of Sprague), but in the process, he got them to see some good football players. That's how you got kids to college." 

It wasn't just Rams players, either. Ward, a longtime Sprague assistant and a lifelong friend, said Sprague would often point college coaches in the direction of kids at other schools who he believed deserved a shot just as much as his Riverview players.

Josh Smithers, the current Riverview head coach, believes he was one of those kids, though he never heard Sprague say that directly. Smithers played high school football at Cardinal Mooney High and college football at Georgia Southern University. He was recruited by the Eagles at the same time as Riverview's Greg Hill, who would go on to quarterback Georgia Southern to the 1999 NCAA Division II championship. Smithers believes Sprague told coaches to chat with Mike Dowling and Cardinal Mooney about Smithers once they were done looking at Hill. 

"Without that (tip), I may not have played college football at all," Smithers said. Smithers said he was also thankful for the support Sprague gave him when he took the Rams' job in 2017. Sprague's best advice, Smithers said, was simple, yet effective: just be yourself.

Sprague certainly always was. 

The first time Rudy Fraraccio met Sprague was during a 1985 coaching conference in Orlando. Fraraccio was an assistant coach under Head Coach Mike Dowling at Cardinal Mooney High at the time; he would later work as an assistant coach under Sprague from 1989 to 2003. The three coaches, plus a few others, had decided to spend the evening at a Bennigan's restaurant. 

The group had a few beers at dinner, as football coaches are wont to do. Not Sprague, though — he was the designated driver. After a while, Fraraccio said, a server approached the table and said they couldn't be served anymore. The group was politely asked to leave. When the group inquired why, the server pointed to Sprague. 

He was being too loud, the server said. 

The group, Fraraccio said, could only laugh. Even when he was the only sober person at a table, there was no one with as big a personality as Sprague. 

A lot of John Sprague stories involve language that newspapers would deem unfit to print. That's just how he talked, and it was part of what made him so endearing to so many. His work ethic, too, was admirable. Fraraccio said Sprague was always the first one into the office and the last one to leave. He asked a lot of his players and coaches and he gave every ounce of himself in return. If you met his effort level, you formed a lifelong bond.

Pat Robinson, Sarasota's deputy city manager, played for Sprague at Riverview and was a part of the 1994 Rams team that went undefeated in the regular season. Robinson said the lessons he learned from Sprague and the rest of the coaches were "immeasurable," and most of them had nothing to do with football. 

"Being around that type of moral character infuses (with) your development as you move forward," Robinson said. "There are so many examples of things I learned. You never stop playing until the clock stops. You always have another opportunity to excel. You always expect the best out of you and your teammates and you always bring 100%. That stuff has resonated with a lot of the guys I keep in touch with, in our business lives and in our day-to-day lives." 

Sprague liked to talk, but he also walked the walk. Fraraccio said that when he was a single parent of two daughters, Sprague made sure he had enough money to make ends meet, something Fraraccio always appreciated. 

He ran the Rams like a family, because that's what they were. Fraraccio, Ward, Nicholas: the three former assistants all said they, and Sprague, treated their players as if they were their own kids. 

Ward said Sprague would fight on players' behalf with the school's administration if they got in trouble. He wanted to make sure they stayed on the team, Ward said, because for some kids, the team was all they had. Sprague would then give the player a punishment of his own — maybe they had to do extra runs after every practice for a month, an example Ward gave. They didn't get off free, but they got to keep football in their lives. 

Nicholas' voice wobbled as he thought about the philosophy behind Sprague's actions and what he meant to everyone at Riverview. 

"We had 80 kids on our varsity rosters back then," Nicholas said. "That meant like 30 kids rarely played. But no one ever quit, because they were a part of something. It was a family. It was a special time in a lot of people's lives when they were exposed to John and to Riverview." 

A celebration of life for Sprague will be held 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 2 at Evie's Tavern and Grill on Bee Ridge.



Ryan Kohn

Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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