TAMPA — Moments after Tampa Catholic clinched a state final four berth Friday, two eyes were spotted in the Crusaders’ hurricane of euphoria, and both were welling up.
They belonged to the first-year Crusaders coach, banished from the county’s public school ranks nearly four years before. Once, those eyes could burn through umpires like a blowtorch. Now, they glistened with tears. Once, this coach’s voice would periodically roar from a dugout. Now, it cracked.
Once, when he had been fired after five seasons at Hillsborough High, this coach cried out for due process.
Now, he just cried.
“Tom (Reidy), he’s the best,” the coach, referring to TC’s principal and former baseball coach, said with a quivering voice. “He stepped outside the box and he gave me a chance to coach again.”
With that, the redemption of Pat Russo was complete.
A handful of improbable story lines accompany the quintet of local teams headed to the state tournament in Port St. Lucie. King is making its first trip in the 35-year career of coach (and King alumnus) Jim Macaluso. Armwood is making a second straight appearance despite being a No. 4 seed in its district.
But on the surreality scale, you’d be hard pressed to top Russo, who has TC in the final four in his first season.
One of the area’s most successful and combustible coaches, Russo won more than 200 games and three Saladino Tournament crowns in 11 seasons at Plant and Hillsborough. Six of his teams won 20 or more games. His 2006 Hillsborough team reached the Class 5A state final. Dozens of his players earned college rides.
But his six-season tenure at Plant ended in 2001 with his dismissal. The public explanation was Russo didn’t work on campus. Then in the fall of 2006, he was fired by Hillsborough’s administration amid a county investigation for possible recruiting violations.
What followed was a three-year exile from the vocation he cherished. After his firing at Hillsborough, Russo applied for baseball jobs at Tampa Bay Tech, Chamberlain, Robinson (his alma mater), Strawberry Crest and even Wiregrass Ranch in Pasco County.
“I just went to interview at those places because my dad thought it would be a good experience,” said Russo, 42. “But I knew in my heart that Hillsborough County wasn’t going to allow me to coach any more over there.”
Locally, his only flicker of hope seemed to lie in the private sector. When Rich Arena resigned as TC’s coach last summer, Russo threw his previously tarnished name in the applicant pool.
His interview floored Reidy, who hired him in August despite the objections of what Reidy said were “a few” TC supporters.
“I was a coach, Pat was a colleague, but I’m not sure we really knew each other that well,” said Reidy, who coached the Crusaders from 2003-06.
“You get to talking to (him) and he’s got a passion, and anybody that meets him likes him. He just brings out the best in the kids, and when we started looking at who’s the best person for the kids, it was Pat, and all the other stuff we’d take care of.”
With a new lease on his coaching life came a mildly modified Russo. A married father of two boys, Russo remains as competitive as ever, though he says he’s now careful not to let his intensity seep over.
“I still had the same fire, it’s just, you know, looking at things a little more thoroughly before I react and thinking before I talk a lot of times; it’s made me a better person,” said Russo, who co-owns a sports apparel business.
“Just understanding steps that you’ve got to take to get things done instead of just doing them and thinking before you react, it’s just been a better year for me.”
And a banner year for the Crusaders (20-10), who face Jacksonville Bolles in a Class 3A semifinal Wednesday. After a five-game losing streak in mid April, Russo, whose pitching staff is devoid of a bona fide ace, has TC peaking.
“I think some (detractors) that maybe didn’t say anything and now have gotten to know him, they would’ve regretted it if they would’ve said something,” Reidy said.
“I think he’s changed some feelings about himself for people who were skeptical and he’s won some people over.”
At Digital Domain Park, Port St. Lucie
A: Eagle’s View vs. Lake Worth Trinity Chr., 10; Deltona Trinity Chr. vs. Highlands Chr., 1
3A: Tampa Catholic vs. Jacksonville Bolles, 5; Cocoa vs. Gulliver Prep, 8
Other local matchups
6A: Alonso vs. Hialeah American, 1 p.m. Friday
5A: King vs. Pace, 1 p.m. Monday
5A: Armwood vs. St. Thomas Aquinas, 8 p.m. Monday
4A: Jesuit vs. Ponte Vedra, 10 a.m. Friday
2A: Shorecrest vs. Jay, 10 a.m. Monday