Sand, Sun and the SEC: The Secluded Florida Region Where Football Coaches 'Find Peace'

They've flocked to 30A in droves, escaping from their high-pressure jobs to beach hideaways they pray stop gaining in popularity. Why here?
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ROSEMARY BEACH, Fla. — From behind the wheel of his topless black Jeep, Gerry DiNardo, the football coach turned television analyst, is appropriately dressed for the job he’s been thrust into.

On this sun-splashed May day, he’s a tour guide to the rich and (football) famous.

In white shorts, flip-flops and a T-shirt, DiNardo gestures toward roadside attractions as his vehicle bounds down the ocean-hugging highway of 30A, a 19-mile stretch wedged between the party cove of Panama City and the tourist magnet of Destin. The thoroughfare bisects a dozen secluded beach communities across a region named after the roadway itself—Thirty-A.

Here, white sandy beaches meet emerald-colored waves. Boutique shopping centers are designed around outdoor pavilions. Seafood eateries are sprinkled among palm-tree-lined mansions, quaint beach homes and shaded bungalows.

Greetings From 30A

This gem, no longer so well hidden, has evolved into a burgeoning destination for wealthy families, country music stars, pro athletes and one other genre—college football coaches, past and present.

College coaches have flocked here in droves. They vacation here. They own homes here. And they eventually retire here, if they haven’t already.

They burrow themselves within this sand-covered place, purchasing million-dollar beach homes in 30A, high-priced condos in nearby Sandestin and water-front property as far west as downtown Destin.

“It’s tough to beat Destin,” says Gus Malzahn, “from the beach to the eating to the golf.”

There are so many coaches here that they regularly find themselves running into one another. In his beachside neighborhood, Mark Stoops says he often spots Kirby Smart and Derek Mason. From his Sandestin condo, DiNardo has seen a shirtless Ed Orgeron jogging along the shoreline, and Tommy Bowden often runs into James Franklin in the airport.

Tommy Tuberville has called Destin his second home for years, and Mark Richt spends half the year in his Sandestin condo. Bobby Bowden, Will Muschamp and Jimbo Fisher have all owned homes here. Malzahn owns a waterfront condo, Neal Brown bought a home here five years ago and Manny Diaz is often seen vacationing in the area.

Those from the professional ranks have found this place, as well. They include Sean Payton, Jack Del Rio and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. In fact, the agent to many of these football coaching bigwigs, Jimmy Sexton, is one of the originals, a trendsetter who bought his first place here some 30 years ago.

“Our celebrities here are basically coaches,” says Cary Shahid, a former Kentucky linebacker and the longtime owner of the Ocean Club, a swanky restaurant in the Sandestin area that many coaches frequent. “This has always been a place where coaches find peace.”

They are protective of this place, careful not to reveal too much about their beach hideout. Some politely declined interview requests about it entirely, and others jokingly discouraged a reporter from publishing anything on the topic.

Don’t spoil the secret!

It’s far too late for that.

Previously a forgotten stretch some 15 miles east of Destin, south Walton County, incorporating Sandestin and 30A, is now bursting with development, construction and, yes, traffic. Last week marked the start of the busy season here, Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, when affluent vacationers—exhausted of the urban centers of Destin and Panama City—flood into a more exclusive, family-friendly area, one with noise ordinances, building height restrictions and gated neighborhoods. That includes college football coaches.

“It’s been one of the best investments we’ve made as a family,” says Mason, the former coach at Vanderbilt who is now defensive coordinator at Auburn and owns a spot on 30A. “At least half the coaches in the SEC have a place down there.”

But why? For many, the SEC spring meetings were a launching point. The meetings, which include football and basketball coaches and high-level administrators from each school, are held every May at the Hilton Sandestin, a five-minute drive from where 30A, the two-lane roadway, branches off from Highway 98 and dives into the secluded beach communities.

DiNardo traces his Destin roots to a conversation he held at SEC meetings with former Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt.

“If you love the area so much,” she told him, “just get a place here. I did.”

Coaches find this place through many avenues. Sexton often lures his clients to the area. Others hear about it through colleagues. For instance, Tommy Bowden recalls passing Richt his realtor’s information.

The population density here has boomed lately, says DiNardo, who bought his Sandestin condo in 1999 while coach at LSU.

“The word has spread about the beaches. They’re like the Bahamas,” he says while motoring along in that jeep of his. “It gets crazy busy.”

On this mid-May day, the traffic along 30A could be described as bearable. This place is still secluded enough—just how coaches want it.

Most coaches have moved from Destin proper to the 30A area, says Sexton, himself a native of Fort Walton and owner of a property in the gated 30A community of Watersound. Sexton spent most of the pandemic here, relocating from his Memphis home to his vacation pad, where he’s more relaxed, even while working at his high-pressure job.

“When I’m there, they would call me from the office and say, ‘We have a problem.’ When I was in the office and a problem arose, my blood pressure would go through the roof. But sitting on the beach, I don’t care,” Sexton says.

For Sexton, his clients and other celebrities, the area provides an escape not only from work but even from notoriety.

Pete Jenkins, a longtime SEC defensive line coach, gestures toward the bay from his home near the 30A area.

Pete Jenkins, a longtime SEC defensive line coach, gestures toward the bay from his home near the 30A area.

There is somewhat of an unwritten rule here that locals follow: Leave the celebrities alone.

“There’s not a lot of ‘Hey, can I get your autograph?’ ” says Dylan Bozarth, the general manager for 30A Escapes Luxury Vacation Rentals.

“Here, I’m just another old, gray-haired, retired guy,” says Pete Jenkins, a longtime defensive line coach in the SEC who owns a bayside home near 30A.

Coaches, administrators and others simply blend in with the beachgoers.

“Flip-flops, floppy hat and sunglasses … you just … disappear,” says Scott Stricklin, the Florida athletic director who bought a place in 30A last year.

Upward of three dozen college head football coaches either vacation here frequently, own a home here or are retired here. They aren’t the only celebrities in the area. Dozens of country music artists make this place their home or vacation spot, most notably Luke Bryan, once 30A neighbor to Tommy and Bobby Bowden.

Former NFL stars can be spotted here too, such as Drew Brees, Jason Witten and Phillip Rivers. In fact, a group of current and former players hold an annual flag football game on July 4 at Watercolor, a private 30A community.

John David Sullivan, CEO and partner at Berkshire Hathaway’s Florida beach property division and a resident of the 30A area, has played in those games in the past. As a 54-year-old, he doesn’t recommend it.

“They take it seriously,” he says.

Down here, college coaches say they don’t regularly hang out together. This is a place to spend time with family, not colleagues.

However, there is one rendezvous joint.

“It’s the Ocean Club,” says Richt, who owns a condo in a Sandestin community called TOPS’L, a short walk from the restaurant

On a random Monday in May, Shahid is belly up to the Ocean Club bar preparing for dinner and retelling stories. The restaurant is the social epicenter each May during SEC spring meetings. In what’s become somewhat of an annual tradition, coaches and administrators dine at the club on the first night of the meetings. As many as eight schools have their own separate table.

It’s a who’s who of college basketball and football coaches and athletic directors, all in one place on one night.

“I’ve often thought, ‘If fans have any idea …’” says Stricklin, chuckling.

The Stoops brothers are regulars at the Ocean Club, says Shahid. Mark, Mike and Bob Stoops host a gathering each July nearby, renting homes for what’s turned into a 50-person beach family reunion.

One night at the restaurant, an Oklahoma fan recognized Bob and offered to pick up the Stoops’s family check.

“There’s, like, 25 of them,” Shahid told the man. “They make a lot of money.”

“Well,” said the Oklahoma fan, “I make a lot of money too and I want to buy their dinner.”

The Ocean Club, located in the heart of Sandestin, geographically connects 30A and Destin proper—two entirely different places. One is a typical touristy U.S. vacation spot, rife with hotel chains, amusement parks and strip malls. The other is a master-planned community of upscale shops, luxury homes and local restaurants.

Cary Shahid, a former Kentucky linebacker and the longtime owner of the Ocean Club, speaks from his swanky restaurant in the Sandestin area.

Cary Shahid, a former Kentucky linebacker and the longtime owner of the Ocean Club, speaks from his swanky restaurant in the Sandestin area.

In fact, there are no hotels on 30A, and no new developments can be taller than four stories. Strict neighborhood and community codes exist, and nearly half of the area is protected land for parks, dunes and woodlands.

It is an eco-friendly Disney World. Instead of bungee jumping and go-cart racing, folks here ride bikes and paddle board.

Residents and visitors often feel like they are removed from the world, transported to a fictitious, beachside haven. In fact, the area’s original settlement, Seaside, the inspiration for other communities here, was portrayed as an actual fake world as the primary filming location of the 1998 Hollywood comedy-drama The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey.

“It’s Mayberry at the beach,” Mike Ragsdale, the founder of the 30A Company, says in reference to the sleepy town from The Andy Griffith Show. “We feel like we’re living in a bubble. People are critical of it. ‘That’s not the real world!’ Well, that’s O.K. with us.”

Branching out from Seaside, both east and west, are sprawling waterfront communities. There’s the more affordable option of Santa Rosa; the tree-lined beauty of Rosemary Beach; the exclusive, gated districts of Watercolor and Watersound; the small bungalow spot of Grayton Beach; and the most fascinating of them all, Alys Beach, a luxury community whose all-white structures resemble the shores of Greece.

Alys, pronounced Alice, welcomes visitors with rows of tall palm trees straight out of Beverly Hills. The starting price of a home here is about $5 million.

“If they dropped you from a helicopter into this place and gave you 100 guesses,” says DiNardo, smiling, his Jeep whirring past the palms, “you wouldn’t say one of them is the Florida panhandle.”

The 30A community is becoming so popular that it is developmentally nearing capacity. Longtime residents are in a fight to protect its quaint and quiet nature, rich Southern hospitality and reserved parkland. Affluent families from New York and Los Angeles are arriving in the area seeking to purchase land, homes and even businesses.

“They’ve got $5 [million] to $10 million and are saying, ‘O.K., what can I get?’” says Ragsdale.

Prices here are skyrocketing, part of a population spike seen in many warm-weather U.S. destinations in a world recovering from COVID-19. About 75% of owners rent their property, and rentals, for a second straight summer, are at 100% occupancy.

The increase in traffic and tourists is a reason Tommy Bowden moved to Destin proper about three years ago. He once owned a home next to his father, Bobby, along 30A at Seagrove. Now, he lives in a gated, bayside community called Kelly Plantation.

His days are spent lounging by the pool, fishing from his dock and beaching with family.

“I have a big day today,” he says, smiling. “I’m getting a haircut!”

A few miles east of Bowden’s gated home, DiNardo’s Jeep completes its journey down 30A. He merges onto traffic along Highway 98, the main thoroughfare running through Destin. He passes the Ocean Club and the Hilton Sandestin and wheels into his condo’s parking garage.

His job for the day—tour guide—is over. It’s back to retirement life.

It’s time for lunch on the beach, he says, and maybe a cold drink, too.

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