There were tears. There were stories that brought back memories. There was extended applause. And there were hugs — lots and lots of hugs.
In an emotion-filled meeting with his players and their parents Sunday night, Plant High football coach Robert Weiner said goodbye to the program he built into a powerhouse. Weiner announced he will join Willie Taggart's staff at the University of South Florida, where he will coach receivers.
"Speaking to these guys tonight was more difficult than any pregame speech,'' said Weiner, 48, who was 102-19 in nine seasons with the Panthers, winning four state titles and reaching another title game. "You just have to scream and yell through those.
"I said I didn't know if I could make it through 20 seconds (without crying). I think I made it through 45. … Any time you've invested in something, the depth of that investment carves a place into your heart. These guys will forever be in my heart.''
Plant principal Robert Nelson said he expects the job to be "highly sought-after.'' He said current staff members will be considered, along with outside candidates. A new coach could be in place within a month.
"Robert brought the excellence back to Plant football,'' Nelson said. "It's more than what happened on Friday nights. It's working to get kids scholarships, the mentoring, the tutoring. This is a solid program.''
It's the first college position for Weiner, a Jesuit High graduate who became a long-time assistant at his alma mater. He was baseball coach at Crystal River before taking the Plant job in 2004.
The Panthers were 1-9. At the first team meeting in the auditorium, Weiner boldly predicted the players would one day return to receive state championship rings. There were muffled snickers from a few parents.
After the 2006 season, Weiner presented some of those Plant players with state championship rings following a 15-0 finish. The Panthers also won state titles in 2008, 2009 and 2011.
"Robert and Sean Callahan (Armwood) have set the bar high in this county,'' Hillsborough coach Earl Garcia said. "He has accomplished everything there is to accomplish at Plant. Now he gets to move up and not have to move out of town. He doesn't have to go someplace where it's a million degrees below zero.''
Garcia predicted Weiner's hiring will help USF's recruiting efforts. Three of Hillsborough County's top prospects — Wharton's Vernon Hargreaves III, Armwood's Alvin Bailey and Hillsborough's Jordan Sherit — have committed to the University of Florida. Meanwhile, Armwood's Leon McQuay III just pledged to USC.
"If USF can keep guys like that home, it would make a profound difference,'' Garcia said. "Robert Weiner brings credibility and name recognition. He's a great connection to Tampa high schools. I think it's a brilliant move by coach Taggart.''
USF's gain is Plant's loss, though.
Nowhere was that more evident than the Plant football field house Sunday night.
"It's an opportunity he had to take,'' Panthers rising senior quarterback Colby Brown said. "He has been giving and giving and giving this whole time. Now it's his turn.
"We hate to lose him because he's the best of the best. But we're going to pull together and have a good season.''
Plant defensive end Mitchell Wright, who has committed to USF, was probably the most excited player of all.
"It's an amazing feeling, knowing that he will still be on my coaching staff,'' Wright said. "He's one of those guys who not only makes you a better player, he makes you a better person.''
Weiner, whose team lost in the 2012 Class 8A region semifinals against Orlando Dr. Phillips, said he was anticipating big things from the Panthers next season. Those expectations haven't changed.
"The program has never been in better shape,'' Weiner said. "Of course, I'd like someone from our staff to get the job, but I know there will be a million people who will want it. I have faith in our administration. The new coach will come in, put his stamp on it and take off.
"As a Plant Panther, I'd be very disappointed if we don't come out really, really, really successful next season.''