When Lenny Jankowski was hired to be Vero Beach High School’s football coach in January 2011, his assignment was to restore the program’s fading glory and, sooner rather than later, compete for state championships.
That meant he needed to win – win quickly, win often, win when it mattered most.
For the most part, he has done so: Now in his eighth season, Jankowski has compiled an impressive 76-10 record at Vero Beach, where his teams have won 49 consecutive regular-season games, dating back to 2013, as well as four consecutive district titles and 15 consecutive district games.
His fun-to-watch Fighting Indians also have reached the Class 8A playoffs in each of his seven previous seasons, advancing to four regional semifinals and the regional final in 2013, when they fell one game shy of the state’s Final Four.
Vero Beach is 6-0 heading into October and again, it appears, headed to the playoffs. This time, though, there’s a real reason to believe this season might be different, maybe even special.
Three of Vero’s victories have come on the road – against defending Class 7A champion Venice, perennial Class 1A power Pahokee and the best St. Lucie West Centennial team in years.
“I think playing a difficult schedule and overcoming adversity helps,” Jankowski said.
“We’ve played three road games against strong programs with teams that are doing well this season,” he added. “You’d hope those kinds of experiences would have some value as the season progresses.”
To win a second state championship – Vero Beach’s only such title came in 1981, one year after the arrival of legendary coach Billy Livings – the Fighting Indians need to win tough games against upper-echelon opponents away from the friendly confines of the Citrus Bowl.
Clearly, Jankowski knows what it will take to bring home a title, though he said he has always tried to put together the best schedule possible, balancing the program’s competitive needs with the financial benefits of playing in front of big crowds at home.
“I’m also the athletic director, and I’ve got to fund 49 varsity and sub-varsity teams,” Jankowski said. “Football makes money. When we play a home football game, we make money.”
Same goes for visiting non-district teams, which is why so many of them are willing to make the trip to Vero Beach and take home a share of the gate.
But a state championship – or even a run to the state’s Final Four – would be worth far more, at least in terms of stature and, possibly, in additional revenues generated by appearances on ESPN, which nationally televises opening-week, high school games involving marquee teams with top recruits.
“Top programs playing out-of-state games is becoming a big thing,” Jankowski said, “and I think it would be great to get ESPN to come to the Citrus Bowl.”
With that in mind, Jankowski began exploring the possibility of scheduling what he called a “game of national significance” two years ago.
Those efforts resulted in Vero Beach’s season-opening trip to Virginia in 2017 to play state runner-up Oscar Smith High.
The Fighting Indians won the game, which ESPN declined to televise because Jankowski’s team didn’t have any five-star recruits on its roster, and returned to Florida to win at Wellington – the first time since 1988 that Vero Beach had opened a season with consecutive road victories.
Jankowski followed up by scheduling this season’s high-profile road games against Venice, Pahokee and Centennial.
“We’ve definitely embraced the challenge of playing on the road against teams of that caliber, and our kids have handled it,” Jankowski said.
“But scheduling these games isn’t easy,” he added. “The hardest thing about scheduling in high school? You don’t know how good your team is going to be, and you don’t know how good the other teams are going to be – because it can change from year to year. You also have to get the other team’s cooperation.
“The last couple of years, our schedule has played out well for us.”
Only home games remain on Vero Beach’s regular-season schedule, which will bring Fort Pierce Westwood, Treasure Coast, Fort Pierce Central and Sebastian River to the Citrus Bowl.
Then, barring an unlikely collapse, the Fighting Indians will return to the playoffs and resume their quest for a state championship.
“It’s such a long process and there are so many things along the way that have to work in your favor,” Jankowski said of chasing a championship. “If you spend time looking too far ahead, you’ll mess up what’s right in front of you, so you can’t get ahead of the task at hand.
“But I do believe in being goal-oriented and dangling the carrot,” he added. “It’s OK to let the kids know what’s possible, but you’ve got to keep your focus, because it’s a grind just to get to Friday night. Once that’s over, you start again, and you do that every week.
“Even then, there’s so much outside your control, but that’s all part of the challenge.”
It’s the challenge the former John Carroll High player and coach accepted when he left his position as football coach and athletic director at Walton High in DeFuniak Springs and moved here, against the advice of some friends who warned him that the Vero job wasn’t what it was a decade earlier.
He was told people had stopped coming to games, the best athletes on campus weren’t playing football, and that Vero hadn’t been in any serious conversations regarding the state’s better programs since the late 1990s. Worse, he was told Fighting Indian football was becoming irrelevant.
Jankowski, however, saw possibilities where skeptics saw problems.
“I had a good job at Walton, made a good living and had a nice house, but I remembered what Vero Beach football was – the Citrus Bowl, the crowds, the tradition – and I believed we could be successful there,” Jankowski said.
“I was confident we would play the type of game the players would enjoy playing and the fans would enjoy watching,” he added. “I believed if we did the little things, big things would happen.”
With Jankowski running the show – at times, that’s what his passing attack resembles – the Fighting Indians continue to play a brand of football that is as entertaining as it is successful.
And now that they’ve taken their act on the road, Vero Beach fans are eager to see how far they can go.