ST. PETERSBURG — Close-ups of basketball coach George McCrossin, tucked away the past two decades in a newspaper photo library, suggest urgency and anguish. His fingertips flatten his cheeks as he yells over a thousand noises, or unite in the steeple position as he resigns himself to watch. He is by turns an enthralled moviegoer, a bystander looking up at the Hindenburg — or, occasionally, a proud father.
Mr. McCrossin, who coached basketball at St. Petersburg Junior College for 35 years, the second-longest tenure of any junior college coach in the nation when he retired in 1987, died Jan. 23. He was 85.
"He did as much with what he had as any coach in the country, as far as I'm concerned," said Ed Davis, 79, who coached baseball at SPJC while Mr. McCrossin was there.
His accomplishments in golf were equally storied. The school, now called St. Petersburg College, did not have a golf team before Mr. McCrossin started it in the early 1960s. He took the team to two national championships and was named the 1969 National Junior College Coach of the Year.
Usually, he succeeded with players the bigger schools did not want, believing that proper execution beats talent.
"Where he was stubborn is that he ran the same plays from 1950 to 1970 to 1980. It was basically challenging the other team to stop us," recalled Lars Hafner, who played basketball under Mr. McCrossin from 1979 to 1981.
At the same time, Hafner, 48, called Mr. McCrossin a "groundbreaker" who welcomed the merger between SPJC and Gibbs Junior College at the beginning of sports desegregation.
"He really took that seriously, and really helped break down those barriers through his coaching and his willingness to embrace change," said Hafner, who is now the president of the State College of Florida.
"He was one of the first in Juco ball to actually play an integrated team," said Terry Byrd, 61, a SPJC player under Mr. McCrossin. Byrd, who is black, directs law enforcement training at SPC.
"There's just nothing like coaching junior college," Mr. McCrossin said in 1969, his 19th year of coaching. "The maximum time we have a player is two years. We can't afford to spend a minute on fundamentals. Either a player has them when he gets here, or he doesn't. But he doesn't have time to learn them."
Jim Harley, 76, a retired Eckerd College basketball coach, met Mr. McCrossin 40 years ago, while Harley was athletic director at Miami-Dade Community College.
"In meetings (on the court), I quickly learned that he was a classy person with a fairness about him. His teams were always competitive and difficult to beat, so I had a dual respect for George McCrossin."
His passion for the game stemmed from childhood. He was orphaned at age 4 and grew up in an orphanage and foster homes. Basketball was an outlet, and he never lost that hunger.
After serving with the Marines in the Pacific during World War II, he returned to the sport in college at the University of Pittsburgh.
He coached in Pittsburgh for a few years, then signed on at SPJC in 1952. As coaches go, he was quiet.
"He would get really intense in terms of really getting involved in the game, directing players who they should cover and where they should go, or yell at them to get back on defense," Byrd said. "But in terms of abusing players or using profanity, no."
Those courtesies did not extend to referees. In 1966, Mr. McCrossin famously questioned a no-call on what he thought was an obvious goaltending violation by Brevard Junior College. After a referee handed him three technical fouls, Mr. McCrossin told him, "I don't care about the technical, but it's still goaltending."
"I'll give you two minutes to get off the court," the ref said.
"If I'm leaving, I'm taking my boys with me," he replied.
The team walked out, forfeiting the game. With 12 minutes left, the Trojans were up by 6.
The team went 22-5 in the 1965-66 season, missing the junior college Final Four by one game.
Janice, his wife of more than 55 years, died in 2001. The next year he found romance again with Jean Burks, who had met him as a home health volunteer. They traveled to Biloxi, Miss., and Las Vegas.
A wide circle of former players, coaches and sports fans are mourning his passing. On and off the court, Hafner said, "There is no doubt that we were in the presence of somebody special."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]