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Retiring coach Tim Crosby led Saint Leo University tennis to respectability

ST. LEO — The white cinder block walls of Saint Leo University tennis coach Tim Crosby's tiny corner office are barren save for a framed piece of bronze relief art — of a tennis player — right above his desk.

The Spartan decor bespeaks the unpretentious nature of its occupant, who greets his visitor with a firm handshake and a soft voice. Many insist that voice, tinged with a Philadelphia accent, never has risen above a conversational tone.

"He's just the same — good, bad or indifferent," Lions athletic director Fran Reidy said. "Never overexcited, never depressed, never moody."

In a gentleman's game, they say Crosby, 66, is the consummate one. In an era when coaches see their current job as a springboard to the next, and when they often allow competitive fires to char their perspective, Crosby is part of a docile, dignified breed.

And a dying one. Earlier this week, Crosby, the longest-tenured coach of any sport in the nine-school Sunshine State Conference, announced his retirement. And so departs one of the few remaining vestiges of stability in the coaching profession: a man who remains married to the same school — and woman — his whole adult life.

"They simply do not make them like Tim Crosby anymore," Reidy said.

In accordance with Crosby's unassuming nature, few probably realize Tim isn't even his real name. He was born Thomas Joseph Crosby Jr., but he adopted the shorter name because his sister, Mary, couldn't pronounce "Thomas" as a toddler. It stuck so much, Crosby named his only son Tim.

"If I get a phone call at home and they say, 'Thomas,' I say, 'He's not in,' " Crosby said with a chuckle.

Born in Philadelphia but raised in St. Petersburg, Crosby arrived at Saint Leo's hilly lakeside campus in 1965 as a baseball-playing junior college transfer hoping to earn a degree in physical education. Problem was, the school had no teacher for the PE courses offered.

Eventually, Crosby persuaded then-Pasco High principal Wayne Malone, who had a master's in PE, to teach on campus one night a week. When told the school wouldn't hire a teacher for only one student, Crosby convinced some other Saint Leo athletes to major in PE. Alas, a department was born.

The guy who spurred it never has left its side.

During his nearly half-century at Saint Leo, Crosby has played baseball, spent three years as a baseball assistant, coached men's and women's tennis, and served as a men's dormitory resident assistant and dean of men. He remains an associate professor of physical education and athletic department historian.

It's where he met his wife of 40 years, Maria; served as an assistant on the 1969 baseball team that upset Florida, FSU and Miami; and helped train a pubescent, red-headed phenom named Jim Courier when his mother would drop him off at the campus in the afternoons.

"At 12 and 13, he was splitting sets with some of (the college players)," Crosby said. "They'd start toying with him or something like that, and all of the sudden, they lost a set because he was like a backboard."

His tennis coaching career began practically by accident. In the late 1960s, when then-athletic director Norm Kaye was seeking a men's coach, he approached Crosby, who had learned the game as a child during summers at recreation centers near his home. The job interview consisted of Crosby playing a set against Kaye.

Crosby prevailed, 6-1. "I smoked him," he said.

He would coach the men's team the next 39 years and the women for 37. Initially, he had no scholarships and a dearth of adequate facilities, but the disadvantages were offset by the stability the sport afforded him.

"Tennis, you know, if you're married and you've got kids, you know you're going to get home when it gets dark," said Crosby, whose three children are in their 30s. "With baseball, you never knew when you were going to be home."

Crosby's early teams consisted primarily of castoffs from the baseball and basketball teams. Until an eight-court complex was completed on the campus' northeast corner earlier this decade, facilities were a logistical nightmare.

For a good chunk of his career, Crosby had six courts, four on one part of campus and two on another.

"It was a joke," Reidy said. "It's like a soccer guy saying, 'I'm going to train you 10 (players) over there, and a quarter-mile away, I'm going to train the rest of the team."

Yet Crosby stuck with it. Saint Leo, in turn, stuck with him. None of his teams ever won a conference title, and only a handful of individual players reached the national tournament. But the names of his players annually dotted the SSC Commissioner's Honor Roll, and his teams earned leaguewide acclaim for their character.

"He is very patient, very calm," said former Lions women's player Iskra Sbraccia, Crosby's assistant since 2006. "He just knows how to reach the players. You don't have to be that loud or be in their face in order to convey a message. He's always done it, I think, the right way."

Now, coaching retirement beckons. Crosby will spend time with Maria, recently retired from Pasco County School District, and his seven grandchildren. He also wants to spruce up his backyard tennis court, and help generate funds for some amenities — such as permanent restrooms and scoreboards — for Saint Leo's facility, a facility that someday might be named in his honor.

"Tim always had a relaxed demeanor about him," said Dr. George Samuels, longtime men's and women's coach at Barry University. "There are so many coaches who are so anxious, hyper and overcompetitive in our sport. I can honestly say our many matches competing against one another were always in a competitive but great sportsmanshiplike fashion."

Retiring coach Tim Crosby led Saint Leo University tennis to respectability 06/20/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 20, 2009 12:50pm]
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