BAYSHORE GARDENS — It has been nearly four decades since Sam Bailey worked at the University of Tampa. But still, school officials said, he's considered an icon.
"He's pretty much the face of athletics at the University of Tampa," said UT athletic director Larry Marfise.
Mr. Bailey passed away Sept. 21 at age 86. He had undergone successful brain surgery twice in the preceding few days to remove a tumor and a blood clot. A second blood clot caused his death, his family said.
Mr. Bailey is probably best remembered as the coach of the UT football team in the 1960s. But Marfise said that was just one item on a long list of his vital contributions to the university.
"He single-handedly started the baseball team and the golf team," Marfise said. "He coached the baseball team even though he didn't get paid for it."
On his own, Marfise said, Mr. Bailey raised money and in-kind contributions to build UT's first baseball field. Another field, built in 1966, is named for Mr. Bailey.
He also coached the UT basketball team and served as athletic director until he left the university in 1972.
Paradoxically, Mr. Bailey's singular passion for athletics at UT led to his being fired, Marfise said. The university's president wanted to eliminate the football program. Even though the decision to end football wasn't based on finances, Mr. Bailey started a fundraising campaign so the program could continue. The president took offense to those efforts and fired Mr. Bailey.
The university president "wanted to get rid of football," said Mr. Bailey's wife, Cookie Bailey. "And to do that he had to get rid of Sam and football."
Mr. Bailey had been a star athlete himself from his days at Fort Myers High School. He grew up on Sanibel Island, where his family operates the Bailey General Store, which is still in business after 100 years. Mr. Bailey would take the ferry from Sanibel to the mainland every Monday, stay in Fort Myers until Friday and then return to work in the store on weekends.
He attended the University of Georgia on a football scholarship and later played professional football with the Detroit Lions and several now-defunct teams.
He came to UT in 1950 as head basketball coach. The next year, he and Cookie, who had been a high school physical education teacher in Sarasota, were married. They celebrated their 59th anniversary in August.
Even though he was fired after a legendary 22-year career, Mr. Bailey never lost his affection for the university and its sports teams.
"I probably spoke to him once a week," Marfise said. "We have an endowed scholarship in his name. And anytime one of his athletes passed away, Sam would donate money to the university in his name."
After he left UT, Mr. Bailey commuted to Sanibel to help run the family store.
He remained strong and active right up until the last days of his life and was playing tennis just a couple of weeks ago.
"He kept himself in excellent shape, always ate right," said longtime friend Betty Wood. "He would never let an ounce of fat get on him. He was a man's man."
But he also had a literary side, she said. He had always written poetry, and when he was in his mid 80s he published his one and only book. A Sanibel Son Looks Back, Mr. Bailey's reminiscence about his youth on an unspoiled island in Old Florida, was published two years ago.
Besides his wife, Mr. Bailey is survived by his daughters Tee Ann Bailey, Toy Bailey and Tye Bailey Carter, his brother Francis and three grandchildren. A celebration of his life is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the Sanibel Historical Village.
Marty Clear writes life stories about Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at [email protected]