TAMPA — To those who stopped by for a hug or a handshake, he was known simply as Coach.
Tom Lota, the retired wrestling coach at East Bay High School in Gibsonton, touched hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives during his 24 years at the school.
Years later, just how many lives Coach had affected would become apparent as he lay at a hospice in Sun City Center for two weeks, battling the ravaging effects of cancer that was diagnosed two and a half years ago.
Hundreds streamed to his bedside to share a word or a smile.
On Sunday, surrounded by family including wife Lynne and friends, Mr. Lota died. He was 63.
More than a few tears had been shed in an exercise both somber and upbeat. Memories were rekindled, like just how much Coach had meant to many teens, athletes and otherwise, who had attended East Bay.
"I've never seen anything like it, the outpouring," longtime friend David Baker said. "Tom would show them, whether an athlete or a student, that they mattered, that they weren't limited and they could do more in life."
Mr. Lota was a champion coach, amassing a 227-71 record in his 24 seasons at East Bay. He led the wrestling team, known as the Indians, to seven district titles and one regional crown.
He retired in 2001 after a stroke. He was named to the USA Wrestling National Hall of Fame in 2006 and the East Bay gymnasium was named for him in 2011.
"They broke the mold when they made him," his wife said.
For weeks, the stories have poured out, such as those of teenagers fighting low self-esteem and finding an encouraging word from Coach. Or students on the verge of flunking able to turn it around because Coach hired a tutor — out of his own pocket.
He regularly urged students to look inside themselves and focus on discipline and healthy living, said brother Chuck Lota, 55, an accountant from Wyckoff, N.J.
"The other day we got a letter from one of his students," Chuck Lota said. "He said, 'Your brother believed in me. He made sure he didn't turn his back on me. He took an interest in me and put me on the right path. Without that, I wouldn't have had a career in the Navy.' "
In addition to his wife, Mr. Lota is survived by daughters Kathy Hall and Lynnette Reina; son Tom Lota Jr.; and two grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were incomplete. A memorial service was being planned at the gymnasium at East Bay High School at 2 p.m. Saturday.