A small town guy destined for big things – Orlando Sentinel
After finishing his college football and baseball career and earning a business degree, Craig Damon was happy to return to Sparr, the tiny dot on Florida’s roadmap where he grew up. He took a job in the accounting office at Lowell Correctional Institute, a state prison for women nestled in the pine woods north of Ocala.
It was the comfortable country life he wanted.
Until everything changed, one step at a time, as former coaches, teachers and mentors continued to convince Damon that he was destined for greater things.
On April 23, Damon was nominated by the Florida High Schools Athletic Association board of directors as the 11th person in command, which governs sports for some 750 schools. At 53, after graduating from youth football coach to FHSAA associate executive director in charge of eligibility and rule enforcement, Damon will soon hold the most important job in Florida high school sports.
He succeeds leaving FHSAA boss George Tomyn on July 1 in a career trajectory that no one could have predicted. The last three executive directors were former school district superintendents, dating back to 2005.
These predecessors were former Seminole and Alachua Superintendent Bob Hughes; Roger Dearing, who was superintendent for Manatee and Indian River counties; and Tomyn, who was Superintendent of Marion County.
Damon, who was head football coach and athletic director for rural North Marion — his high school alma mater — before joining FHSAA in 2013, makes history as the first person of color to hold the highest office. The FHSAA has been the primary governing body for high school athletics in Florida since 1920.
“It’s not something I’ve ever had a goal,” Damon said in a phone interview with the Orlando Sentinel. “I had no idea this could happen. I didn’t think I’d be coaching in high school. I’m still pinching myself to see if it’s real.
The base salary for the job is $160,000 to $180,000, pending contract negotiations.
You get the feeling Damon would do it for minimum wage which is what he earned for the countless hours he spent improving North Marion’s football program for record success with 13 straight playoff appearances during his 13 seasons as head coach (2000-12).
“I’m a little nervous,” he admitted. “What I hold firmly is that I have experienced every role you can have in high school athletics except being a certified official. [referee]. I have walked in the shoes of student-athletes, parents of athletes and all the coaches and administrators of our member schools.
John Pilcher, who was North Marion’s football assistant when Damon played football and baseball for the Colts, is credited for his return to the high school sports field. He persuaded Damon, who played college football and baseball at Lenoir Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina to help with the area’s youth football program. Two years later he recommended him when a place on North Marion’s coaching staff opened up for the 1993 season.
Damon quit his job as an accountant to return to North Marion to mentor and work with students who needed help with math. He earned teaching certificates and switched to teaching the keyboard when typewriters were still in vogue.
“I had no idea what it would feel like to work with kids,” Damon said. “It’s something that really drives me to this day.”
After seven years as an assistant under three head coaches, Damon became North Marion’s first black football coach in 2000. He won big and was loved.
The Colts went 111-48. This included 10 district championships, nine in a row, and three state semifinal appearances. His 17 playoff wins set a Marion County record.
Damon credits Bobby James, the minority’s first head coach since joining Marion County, and Chester Gregory, his North Marion baseball coach and former principal and assistant superintendent of Marion’s school, for helping him. encouraged to expand their role as an educator and to think beyond teaching and coaching. James went from coach to headteacher and school board member.
“Bobby James talked to me about thinking bigger than the little fishbowl I was in at North Marion,” Damon recalls. “I was making a difference in the lives of the kids I was coaching, but Bobby told me I could impact a lot more young people if I moved into administration. I really took that to heart.
Damon completed his master’s degree in 2012 and was a dean of students planning to move up the administrative ladder when he learned that FHSAA had a staff opening.
He applied and landed the job a day before his team played its Kickoff Classic preseason game in August 2013. After the Colts defeated Lake Weir, Damon got his team together and broke the news that he would only coach two more games before leaving for FHSAA work.
“I wanted you to hear it from me,” he said.
The players cried. Damon cried too.
He joined the FHSAA staff in September as athletic director, overseeing swimming, men’s soccer and fastpitch softball.
“It was never a dream of mine. I never thought that would even be a possibility,” he recalls.
A year later, Damon was made responsible for football as well as athletics. And in the spring of 2015, he was promoted to oversee compliance and eligibility, arguably FHSAA’s most difficult and thankless position of power.
He had to investigate wrongdoing while constantly sharing his knowledge of rules and regulations with coaches and school administrators in hopes that ineligibility decisions could be averted.
“FHSAA’s compliance and eligibility department under Craig Damon has been absolutely tremendous,” said Doug Patterson, who oversees athletics for Orange County Public Schools. “They are really trying to find solutions that benefit student-athletes and schools.”
The many members of Damon’s support system, which includes his wife, Anissa, as well as two teaching sisters, uncles, aunts, coaches, colleagues and peers, will tell you that it is Damon’s determination to to do his best – combined with talent, tireless studies and an engaging personality that made him respected and recognized at every step of his rise to success.
“I can’t tell you I saw that coming when I gave Craig his first [high school] coaching job,” said Shelton Crews, who served as North Marion’s head coach for four years and is now executive director of the Florida Athletic Coaches Association. “But when you step back and look at what he’s accomplished in his working life, I realize that I might have expected that from Craig.”
Damon didn’t play politics and didn’t skimp.
“He had a lot of pride and a lot of integrity,” Crews said. “Did all the right things and did it the right way. Class act. Quick learner. He’s a quiet guy, but he’s got that charisma too. You knew he was going to pull it off.
Sentinel Sports Final
Days of the week
Every morning, get the latest sports scores and stories from the day before.
Damon will face difficult situations. Members are divided over a controversial new football playoff format that divides schools into separate metro and suburban divisions. And state lawmakers have talked about stripping the FHSAA of its role as the sole governing body of public schools while allowing competing associations to form.
Crews noted that Damon had four goals written on a whiteboard in his office long before his interview for the executive director position:
- Reconnect with member schools
- Re-establish relationships with partner organizations such as the FACA, Florida Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Associations, and Florida Council of Independent Schools
- Work to coexist with other sports governing bodies
- Provide excellent customer service to its member schools
“Craig won’t be shy about talking to people,” Crews said. “He wants to know what you think. I think it will still travel in the state and be accessible.
“I know we have challenges ahead,” Damon said. “If we can strive to be the best brand possible, everything else should fall into place.”
He still lives in Sparr, in a house built in 2008 right next to where he grew up with his grandparents. He will continue to make the 35-mile trip up I-75 to FHSAA headquarters in Gainesville with Anissa, who works at nearby Santa Fe State College.
It’s a straight shot to I-75 – much like the direct approach Damon diligently traveled to become the new face of FHSAA.