When University of Tampa coach Tom Jessee looks to the opposing bench tonight, he'll see a familiar figure.
Nikki Jessee, first-year coach at Saint Leo (6-5), will bring her women's basketball squad to the Bob Martinez Athletics Center, where she served as an assistant coach the previous two seasons, to face Tom and the Spartans (6-5) at 5:30 p.m.
"My friends up north go, 'When's the divorce bowl going on?' " Tom said. "They've been poking at us more than we have each other. When it's all said and done, win, lose or draw, we want each other to be successful. That's obviously impossible when you play this game."
This will be the first time the Jessees have faced each other as a married couple, though they did square off while they were dating. Nikki was the coach at fellow Sunshine State Conference school Lynn University from 2007-09, and her team handed Tampa its first conference home loss in more than two years on Jan. 28, 2009. Overall, Tom leads the series 3-2.
The pair considers itself blessed to have another opportunity to go head-to-head. When Nikki chose to leave Lynn, move to Tampa to marry Tom and start a family, she thought she was giving up her career.
"I actually bawled talking to my players, and I'm not a really big crier," Nikki said. "When I made that decision, it was I was leaving coaching."
Nikki, a Lakeland native, played for another SSC school, Rollins, so she was returning to familiar territory when she came to Lynn in Boca Raton from Martin Methodist College, an NAIA school in Tennessee. In fact, she knew every coach in the conference except one: Tom Jessee.
After a few phone calls to discuss scheduling and an in-person meeting when the Spartans went down and lost to Lynn, Nikki and her squad traveled to Tampa for their last regular-season game. That time, Tom's team won.
"We traveled with our men at the time, so I had to stay for the men's game," Nikki said. "I walk back in the gym, and he happened to be right there so we started up a conversation, and we ended up talking for about two hours."
Nikki sent Tom a good luck text as the Spartans went on to the NCAA Division II Tournament, and she met him in Tampa for the Women's Final Four. They started dating and were engaged about one year later.
The decision to move was Nikki's — "The conversation was geared around two people in love, what are you going to do?" Tom said — and, despite her intention to leave coaching, Nikki accepted Tom's offer to assist him at Tampa.
About 12 years before, Tom had given up his head coaching position at Bluefield (W.Va.) State to follow his then wife to the Tampa Bay area. Tom coached at Gulf and Mitchell high schools in Pasco County before getting the job at Tampa in 2002.
"I did what you weren't supposed to do," Tom said. "You weren't supposed to pick up your job. I had a really, really good job, good career there, established program, but, much like Nik did for me, I did that.
"We talked about it because, listen, I've already been down that path. I did the exact same thing that we're allowing you to do here. … That made me even more nervous because I know how difficult it is."
With a bit of persuasion from Tom, Nikki didn't miss a season as she joined the Spartans as a volunteer assistant coach. In 2010, she gave birth to their daughter, Rudi. Players marveled at how Nikki attended to Rudi but still saw practice like a coach.
"It was just like, 'Oh, I didn't know you saw that," said Jaleesa Harmon, a senior. "She's superwoman for real. She's missed."
Assistant coaching, though, wasn't fulfilling.
"It's kind of like if you're a phenomenal chef and you get to tell someone else how to make everything, but you don't ever get to do the cooking yourself," Nikki said.
She was again considering leaving coaching for good. Then the post at Saint Leo opened.
"She was the best candidate available," said Saint Leo athletic director Francis Reidy. "Knowing our league, having played in our league, having been successful in our league, having been active at Tampa after being the head coach at Lynn, those were all positives on her resume."
Nikki's turnaround commenced quickly, as Saint Leo started 6-0, tying the program record for best start. And since the Spartans are viewed as heavy favorites, Nikki told the Lions they have nothing to lose.
As for her and Tom, one will win, one will lose, and they, along with Rudi, will celebrate Nikki's birthday the next day. It's all part of the balancing act.
"We have fun with this," Tom said. "We're a basketball family, no doubt about that."
Laura Keeley can be reached at [email protected]