TAMPA — Hillsborough High, the county's oldest public school, made a groundbreaking hire Tuesday.
Stephanie Crawford will take over the boys basketball team, a first for the bay area in a major boys varsity program. Women leading minor boys teams, like wrestling and soccer are not uncommon. And women have headed high school boys basketball teams in other parts of the state, but not locally.
Crawford, 38, was one of seven applicants and the only woman to apply, according to Hillsborough High athletic director Bertha Baker. Baker said she made the final decision with input from principal William Orr.
"We made the decision based on the individual with the best credentials as far as basketball," Baker said. "I didn't look at gender. We took gender out and weighed everyone equally on basketball coaching talent. She came out on top."
Crawford replaces Andre Lewis, who led the Terriers to their first district title in 13 years, a 21-9 record and within two games of the state final four.
Word spread quickly of Crawford's hire. Tarean Austin, a junior forward on the Hillsborough team, said teammates would take some time to warm up to the idea.
"They'll probably laugh, probably think everything like they'll boss the coach around," Austin said. "But after the first two weeks of practice we'll all be on the same page and everything will be all right. But they probably will laugh and won't take it too seriously when they hear it."
Crawford boasts 22 years of experience coaching boys and girls in high school and club programs, like the Amateur Athletic Union, better known as AAU.
One of the first kids she coached is University of Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor, who is also her godson.
"She was always a tough coach, always demanding," Taylor said. "She knows what she's doing. She demands a lot of players. I play for Kansas, and she started me off. She's always been good with coaching guys.
"Off the court, she is someone you can talk to if you need advice. She's always been a part of my life. I'm sure her office will always be open to the guys if they need her. She's been around a lot of basketball."
A lifelong resident of Safety Harbor, Crawford is the daughter of Gloria Barber and Elijah Crawford, who owns Eli's Bar-B-Que in Dunedin. She graduated from Countryside in 1988, and went on to play junior college basketball at several smaller colleges.
She joined the Air Force from 1992-96 and played professionally for the all-Air Force team, both domestically and overseas. She worked at the largest missile base in the United States, F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wy.
"If they called us, it was about to be a nuclear war," Crawford said. "I was security police of the nuclear missiles. These launch facilities had missiles with warheads. If anyone were to be trespassing, my duty was to disarm them, take them down or take them out.
"I had to protect my country."
That grit has made its way to the court.
Crawford was the girls coach at East Lake and Countryside, and also assisted with the boys team at Countryside and was an assistant at Hillsborough Community College for the women's team for one season.
Bob Marinak, the current Sunlake boys basketball coach who had Crawford as an assistant at Countryside, approved of Hillsborough's decision.
"Stephanie was a good assistant and is very knowledgeable," Marinak said. "She's an encyclopedia of basketball drills. I think the boys respond better to her than the girls. She's a Type A personality and very demanding."
Crawford coaches bay area club teams such as Show Time and Prime Time under Generation Next (formerly known as Hoops Headquarters), a foundation run by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Michael Clayton. She is also his personal assistant.
The Florida High School Athletic Association has eased rules on coaches coaching players during the summer. FHSAA spokeswoman Cristina Alvarez said the only concern with coaches who head both club and high school teams is when they lure club players to transfer to their schools.
Clayton first met Crawford when he agreed to speak to one of her AAU basketball teams.
"The way she coached reminded me of the way I was coached when I was young. …The character she instilled in the guys, she's a hands-on coach. Everything about her reminded me what I went through in the past," he said.
Times staff writer Bob Putnam contributed to this report. Izzy Gould can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3458.