Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Sports

Competitive fire still burns in Steinbrenner coach John Crumbley

LUTZ — As his players congregate to pack up their equipment after another long baseball practice on this blustery afternoon at Steinbrenner High School, John Crumbley is occupied in the infield where orange clay meets Bermuda turf.

Standing in a sweat-stained floppy hat and navy pullover, the winningest high school coach in Hillsborough County history plows away — laboring through a line of pesky weeds that have overtaken his sanctuary during the week-long spring break.

But like most of the competition in the Tampa Bay area and beyond throughout Crumbley's three-decade career, the weeds are no match.

"He's the hardest-working, most passionate coach that I've met," said assistant Steve Morgan, his right-hand man since 1992.

From his first triumph — a shutout of Land O'Lakes in February 1985 — to No. 700 over Alonso in extra innings for the Saladino Tournament championship last week, on and off the diamond, that fire within Crumbley has never dimmed.

• • •

Crumbley, 55, can still remember most of the milestone victories that helped mold his status as a cornerstone in county lore.

Arguably the most rewarding for the veteran skipper, who guided Jesuit's program to 575 wins and three state titles in 22 years before stepping into an administrative role in 2006, came two years prior to that sabbatical. His son J.J. pitched the Tigers to a mercy-rule win over Sarasota Cardinal Mooney. It was 500th for Crumbley — the first area coach to reach that mark.

But baseball has always meant more to him than the digits in the win column. Crumbley, admittedly, has never been one for milestones. It's those around him that have made the game special.

"I was just a Town 'N Country kid that went to Leto and has a passion for the game," he said. "I've had good kids, good coaches and I've just been very, very blessed."

When Crumbley was tasked with opening Steinbrenner's program in 2009 following three years as Jesuit's athletic director and a brief stint as a volunteer assistant coach at Florida Gulf Coast University, he did so for the challenge.

The Lutz school that bears the name of famed New York Yankees owner, George Steinbrenner, was a blank canvas. There were no banners hanging from the rafters inside the gymnasium, no trophies lining the shelves of the glass display case.

It was the perfect fit for a coaching itch that never went away.

But before he accepted, Crumbley sought the advice of close friend and fellow area staple Frank Permuy, who headed Gaither from its opening in 1984 to his retirement after the 2014 season.

"When (Gaither) opened up, they told me you're going to get some guys from Leto and some guys from Chamberlain and we didn't have one guy that had sat on a high school bench, much less played," Permuy recalled. "And I said, 'John, I don't think you're going to have to worry about this situation.' "

Permuy was right.

With the aid of a solid nucleus of players from neighboring schools, in true Crumbley fashion, the Warriors were successful from the start. They won 18 games in Year One. Three seasons later, they hoisted their first district crown, and another last year.

"I've just tried to work hard," Crumbley said. "I always envisioned that we would be successful, because that's how I envision every morning when I wake up."

• • •

For the 699 wins prior to that March 18 night against Alonso, the 700th could not have been more fitting as it came exactly five years to the date of Crumbley's 600th in 2011. Steinbrenner rallied from a four-run, first-inning deficit before defeating the Ravens 6-4 in 10 dramatic innings.

"It was like the stars aligned," Morgan said with a smile.

Crumbley isn't sure how much longer he will patrol the dugout and third-base coaching box. It's something he doesn't think about often, guessing that "it might be five years, it might be two years, it might be 10 years" before he hangs up his No. 25 uniform for good.

"I just go to work every day and do the best I can, whether that's in the classroom or in the field or wherever it is," he said. "You know, I do the parking at my church and I want the parking lot to be as perfect as it can be.

"I guess that's just my DNA."

As long as that fire is burning, it will be hard to pry John Crumbley away.

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