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Fitzgerald Mourned and Remembered

Published: December 10, 2004

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 Pepin stadium.


“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 beyond belief.”


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 their game.


“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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