When it came right down to it, the reason Mike Alstott decided to become the head football coach at Northside Christian School in St. Petersburg was simple.
"I miss the game," he said Wednesday after being introduced to a wildly enthusiastic crowd that included several hundred students, faculty and staff at the private school in Pinellas County.
The hugely popular former running back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers accepted his first head coaching job Tuesday at a school with about 600 total students in grades K-12, including 260 in the high school.
"This just feels right," he said about taking the position after about 10 days of talks with school officials. "They made me feel at home."
Alstott, along with his wife, Nicole, and three children, was introduced during the school's weekly chapel, held in Mustang Gymnasium. Headmaster Don James, principal Gina Burkett and athletic director Raul Hernandez were among those beaming with pride and excitement.
"What I know about Mike is he’s a man who loves his family deeply, is passionate about giving back to the community and using this game that has been a blessing to him throughout his life," Hernandez said. "I’ve got no doubt that, in my heart, he’s a person I want around our student athletes."
After a prayer was said for him and a short video was shown featuring highlights from his playing days as a bruising fullback for Buccaneers, Alstott took a microphone and said a few words to the cheering crowd.
"I want to thank you for letting me and my family become part of your family, to become Mustangs and open a new chapter in our lives," he said to loud cheers.
Alstott praised the school's atmosphere, faculty and facilities, as well as its focus on quality education and athletics.
"He's the perfect fit," said Donna Whipple, an elementary teacher at the school. "He's got the balance of football, faith and family."
Alstott said he was first drawn to coaching when he worked with his son, Griffin, in Pop Warner football. Last year, he was a volunteer assistant at St. Petersburg Catholic, working with running backs.
He's got his work cut out for him at Northside Christian. The Mustangs won just one out of 10 games last season and went 14-27 in four years under former coach Andre Dobson, who recently left to become athletic director and football coach at Victory Christian in Lakeland.
Alstott admitted there will be a learning curve to his first head coaching assignment, but said former Bucs coaches Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden, as well as various position coaches, taught him to work hard and smart at the same time.
"It’s not always about the X’s and O’s," he said. "It’s about the belief, it’s about the trust you can develop with people and how well we work together and how well we fight together through adversity.
"That’s my mission here, to develop some young men, and hopefully we’re successful."
Just 23 students turned out for high school football at Northside last year, but that number should jump with the Mustangs' famous new head coach.
Alstott knows his name alone won't bring success to his team on the football field.
"After a while it's not about the hype," he said. "It's about coaching these kids."
Alstott was a six-time Pro Bowl selection in 12 years with the Bucs, when the running back known to fans as the "A-Train" bulled his way to 5,088 yards, the second-most in franchise history. His 71 total touchdowns and 58 rushing TDs are still team records.
Since his retirement after the 2007 season, Alstott has remained active in the Tampa Bay community through the Mike Alstott Family Foundation and other charitable and business ventures.
"To have someone like Mike, with his skill level and talent, obviously is very tempting for any school, for anyone who’d want young men, young lives, to learn about football," Burkett said. "But really at Northside, No. 1, is our faith and our desire to see young lives touched by Christ. That had to be first and foremost for us.
"We felt like we were a good match."
Northside's first game this year will be Aug. 31 at home against Shorecrest Preparatory School, another private school in St. Petersburg that in December hired former Tampa Bay tight end and current Bucs broadcaster Dave Moore, an Alstott teammate, as head coach.
"It's going to be an exciting time," Alstott said. "The program, it's on the right path."
Tampa Tribune columnist Martin Fennelly contributed to this report.