Family, friends, colleagues, past and present student-athletes, and members
of the UT and Tampa Bay communities turned out literally by the hundreds on Dec.
7 to pay their respects to Coach Tom Fitzgerald. The 53-year-old Spartan soccer
legend died in a traffic accident on Dec. 5. He was struck by a vehicle while
riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle in South Tampa.
Before the remembrance began, a double phalanx of red-shirted UT soccer
players filed silently onto the field and took seats behind the Fitzgerald
family. Larry Marfise, UT athletic director, then set a brighter tone by saying
that, more than mourning Fitzgerald’s loss, the gathering would celebrate his
life, “the way he would have liked us to.”
It was fitting, Marfise said, that the remembrance was held at Art and Polly
“This was Tom’s house,” he said.
Among the numerous speakers was assistant men’s soccer coach Adrian Bush, who
was a captain of the Fitzgerald-coached 1994 UT national champions.
“Heroes come and go, but legends are never forgotten,” he said.
President Vaughn quoted Mark Twain after the death of his daughter.
“It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can
receive a thunder stroke like that and live,” he said, adding that Fitzgerald’s
death is such a thunder stroke to Fitzgerald’s family, as well as to his UT
family and the community at large.
“I have often thought of Tom Fitzgerald because the ring I wear daily is the
UT National Championship ring that I received from Tom in my first year of being
UT’s president,” Vaughn continued.
“When Tom called me in the spring of this year expressing interest in
returning to UT, I was excited about having him return home.”
Other speakers flew in from out of state, including Greg Andrulis, Columbus
Crew assistant coach under Fitzgerald and now the team’s head coach, and fellow
former Fitzgerald assistant John Ellinger, recently appointed as head coach of
Major League Soccer’s Salt Lake City expansion team. The two said they plan a
“soccer festival” at UT on Feb. 12, likely to include an exhibition game between
Columbus and Salt Lake.
“He still had so much to give, and he’s gone,” said U.S. Soccer Federation
board member and longtime Fitzgerald friend Francisco Marcos. “It’s a shock
Citing the rareness of Fitzgerald’s soccer successes at three levels—MLS,
NCAA I and NCAA II—Marcos called Fitzgerald’s death “a loss for the country’s
entire soccer family.”
“It’s unbelievable the number of people he touched,” said Fitzgerald’s widow,
Debi. “People who were children when they met Tom have come up to me and thanked
me for the impact he had on them.”
UT sports facilities director Jerome Fulton estimated the turnout for the
service at 700-800.
Fulton spoke, as well, and then concluded the service by singing three verses
of “Amazing Grace” a cappella.
“Fitz” had just returned to the University in March, two years after winning
an NCAA Division I national championship at UCLA. His return was fueled by
family interests, he said.
“My children and grandchild reside in Tampa,” he said last spring, “and I’m
at a point in my life where I want to be close to my family.”
But with that sentiment was a desire to lead the Spartans back to the top of
“I have been following Tampa’s progression since I left there for MLS,” he
said, “and after watching the Spartans fall out of national contention the past
two years, I feel a sense of loyalty to put UT back on track.”
Fitzgerald had coached the Spartans to a Division II national championship in
1994. He was men’s soccer head coach at UT from 1987-95.
Last fall, he guided UCLA to a 20-2-1 record, an undefeated Pac-10 season,
and a No. 1 national ranking for nine weeks as his team advanced to the NCAA
quarterfinals. He was named NCAA West Region Coach of the Year for the second
straight year. In 2002, his championship season at UCLA, he led the Bruins to
their first Pac-10 Conference title.
Fitzgerald got off to an unprecedented start at UCLA, becoming the first
coach to win an NCAA Division I national title in his first season. He also
ranks as only the third coach in history to win NCAA national championships in
both Division I and Division II.
At UT, the 1974 USF graduate led the Spartans to three NCAA II Final Four
appearances, including the ’94 title run. His teams won five Sunshine State
Conference championships and made nine consecutive trips to the NCAA II
Tournament. He was a three-time state, three-time regional and four-time
conference coach of the year.
He posted a nine-year record of 132-32-11 (.786) with the Spartans in his
first UT tenure. His accomplishments earned him a place in the Sunshine State
Conference Hall of Fame, and last fall, he was voted the SSC Silver Anniversary
Team Head Coach.
In 1995, Fitzgerald left college coaching to pursue a position with Major
League Soccer. He joined the Columbus Crew as an assistant coach in 1996, and
was named head coach later in the season, leading the Crew to a 9-1 record in
their final 10 games. He went on to lead Columbus to three consecutive Eastern
Conference finals and to the 1998 U.S. Open Cup Finals.
The 2004 season was the only in Fitzgerald’s career that did not end with a
winning record and post-season play. Including this season, his cumulative
record with the Spartans is 138-41-12 (.754).
Fitzgerald is survived by his wife, Debi; two sons, Shane and Jesse; a
grandson, Caelan; his mother, Betty; two brothers, James and Sam; two sisters,
Bonnie Horrocks and Debbie Risso; three nephews, Ryan Horrocks, Kenny Horrocks
and J. J. Lawrence; and two nieces, Ashley Horrocks and Dawn Lawrence.
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