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Nativity coach '...was like a father to a lot of kids'

BRANDON — As another school year reached its twilight, the second-floor guidance office at Nativity Catholic School still reflected the character of its longest-tenured occupant: modest, unassuming and warm.

On Ron Merrill's desk, beside the small bookshelf with bookends shaped like Rodin's The Thinker, rested a laptop, a baseball card-type photo of Pope Francis, and a cross inscribed with a quotation from Mother Teresa:

We can do no great things, only small things with great love.

Merrill, the Cougars' counselor and coach for all seasons, cleared out his office Tuesday, still bearing that cross and its mantra. Sports seasons had turned into years, years into decades, until the notion of retirement suddenly seemed more appealing than alien.

"I love the kids, I love my job," said Merrill, 65, who finally has time to navigate the nation's highways in his Kawasaki sport touring motorcycle. "But it's time."

All those 27 years, Coach Merrill remained relatively obscure outside the private school of 740 students on State Road 60. His coaching achievements rarely made news segments, much less newsprint.

At Nativity, he won some parochial league titles in junior varsity basketball. At the North Brandon Little League, he won a Majors (ages 11-12) state title with a team starring his son. In at least three of his seven years as Nativity softball coach, his team won every game.

Along the way, he won the affection of a school and community.

"I love him," said J.J. Weir, one of Merrill's former Nativity junior varsity basketball players who started for Jesuit High's Class 5A state championship team last winter.

"I'd kind of describe him as calm, reassuring, kind of just solid — as a person and a coach. Just all-around solid."

The Ron Merrills of the world are slowly disappearing. As more young athletes, from the parochial to prep level, specialize in one sport, so do their mentors. These days, the coach of all trades seems an aberration.

Even rarer are those who can walk away with their perspective — and demeanor — in check. In roughly three decades of local coaching, Ronald Gordon Merrill never was ejected from a contest or assessed even one technical foul.

"I've never seen him get upset or be nervous," fellow Nativity counselor Andrea Cseh said.

"In Little League he would pick up kids for practice or take them home if their parent couldn't or didn't care to get them there," said Merrill's son Ronnie, a former two-sport Jesuit star who played baseball professionally and now serves as a Tampa Bay Rays scout.

"He was always about doing things the right way and doing them with (the players) in mind first."

A dad of two and grandfather of one, Merrill was reared in western upstate New York. After two years as a football walk-on at Northeastern Oklahoma, he finished his career as a scout-teamer at the University of Miami, where he got his education degree.

For a spell, it appeared he wouldn't put it to extensive use. In the mid 1970s, he was teaching and coaching in Columbus, Ga., when wife, Cathy, then a secretary for a building materials company, helped him land an assistant manager's job with the firm.

The gig came with several moves around the country and indirectly led to similar employment with a fledgling company called Home Depot.

"I had visited their stores (in Atlanta) and they were a mess," Merrill said. "I said, 'These guys are never gonna make it.' Shows how much I knew."

Ultimately, Merrill helped open the first Home Depot in Tampa. While driving around with his family of four seeking a house to rent, they discovered Brandon, then Nativity Catholic Church. Soon thereafter, the company asked him to move to Houston.

"We had just got set," Merrill recalled. "So I told them, 'You know what, I think I want to watch my tree grow in the back yard.' "

He hasn't uprooted since. A guidance counselor for all except one of his 27 years at Nativity, he coached softball and tennis, and found time to coach both his kids — Ronnie and Stephanie — in Little League.

"He was (the coach) in so many different ways," Cseh said.

But he'll likely be most remembered for his 24-year stint as the coach without a gym. For nearly a quarter-century, Merrill directed Nativity's boys JV basketball team, teaching the game's basics to 10- and 11-year-olds on an asphalt parking lot behind the church.

In the winter.

"Low shooting percentages out there," Weir recalled with a laugh. "And we were in fifth grade anyway, so we really couldn't shoot."

Not that it mattered. When coaching his kids, Merrill said he never used the word "win," though the Cougars won at least a half-dozen JV championships on his watch. His prevailing philosophy: Listen and try your best. When you mess up, it's okay. Learn from defeats.

"I certainly don't remember the wins or losses," said Nativity alumnus Gary Godsey, who went on to excel in three sports at Jesuit in the late '90s before accepting a football scholarship to Notre Dame.

"But I do remember Ron putting in the extra effort to teach a bunch of 10- and 11-year-olds the game of basketball."

To Merrill, the wins and losses are equally blurry, except for one: The Cougars were playing at Christ the King, whose court actually was covered by a pavilion. Down by 2 in the final seconds, lanky guard Jack Fleming got open at the top of the key.

A teammate found him. Swish.

"We went bonkers," said Weir, who watched Fleming score a game-high 20 points for Jesuit in March's Class 5A state title game. "It was nuts."

In local sports annals, it was inconspicuous. Another small thing achieved with great love.

Today's a good day to reflect on that love.

"He was like a father to a lot of kids," Ronnie Merrill said.

Nativity coach '...was like a father to a lot of kids' 06/15/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 14, 2013 2:25pm]
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