TAMPA — Gradually, the candidates for Hillsborough High's boys basketball team trickle into the gym, gravitating to the end opposite from where the girls team stretches for practice.
The new coach, the one with the military background, hasn't shown up yet. On a side basket, hubris and horseplay commingle as one kid tries to slash by another in a one-on-one challenge. Others clang shots off the main basket on the gym's east end. Over time, more candidates arrive. They laugh. They loiter. They wait.
Finally, Orlando Goodwin, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, slips in through an east-end door. Goodwin attended the University of Kentucky, and he looks like it. He's tall, he's lean, he's quietly dignified.
He's the assistant.
The new sheriff — emphasis on the first three letters — walks briskly toward the group from the gym's west end.
She's wearing black warmup pants, a long-sleeved red pullover and silver hoop earrings. The closer she gets, the clearer it becomes she is shorter than anyone who has come to try out for her team. She grabs the whistle dangling from a piece of red nylon around her neck. Its piercing pings off the brick walls.
"I shouldn't hear anything. Mouths closed!"
Immediate silence follows.
With that, she directs this congregation of three-dozen boys to the football stadium's track. The Terriers are going to hit the ground — or in this case, groundbreaking — running. But before overseeing their timed mile run, Crawford has a brief, bombastic orientation.
In an octave slightly higher, but no less authoritative, than your stereotypical drill sergeant's, she speaks.
"I'm going to make this short, simple and very sweet: I will tolerate zero nonsense. Everything we do is full speed and full court. This is your chance, your very last chance, to show me exactly what you've got.
"Tuck your shirt in. If I see anybody's underwear I'm dismissing you."
The Stephanie Crawford era — harsh, high-intensity and historic — has commenced.
• • •
Reared in Safety Harbor, Crawford, 39 and single, became the first female in the bay area hired to coach a major boys varsity program when she was selected for Hillsborough's job over six other applicants last summer.
But one person's landmark is another's life story. A 1988 Countryside High graduate with no sisters and two older brothers, Crawford had spent roughly two decades coaching boys in various club teams. She also had served as girls coach for one year each at East Lake and Countryside, and assisted with the Countryside boys team.
Toughness also didn't seem an issue. If anyone could withstand the criticisms and potential pitfalls of being a woman in a male-dominated profession, it was Crawford. Born quite literally on the Fourth of July, she spent four years in the Air Force, earning the rank of senior airman and playing professionally for the all-Air Force team.
Nonetheless, she feared her gender would preclude her from getting the job. A conversation with Buccaneers receiver Michael Clayton, for whose foundation she serves as youth program director, convinced her to pursue it.
I said 'Mike, I want to go for it because I know I have the ability,' " she recalled. " 'I know I can coach, this is what I do. I know the game. It's not that, but I'm afraid that they're just going to allow gender to stand in my way.' And he said to me, 'Go for it. Nothing is ever too great.' So I did and I went full steam ahead."
Fortunately for her, the Hillsborough administration never blinked.
"I didn't look at gender," Terriers athletic director Bertha Baker told the Times upon Crawford's hiring. "We took gender out and weighed everyone equally on basketball coaching talent. She came out on top."
• • •
The final group of players has just completed its mile run. During this initial phase of the tryout, Crawford has warned the stragglers that those who can't complete a mile in the maximum time permitted can't play for her. She gathers the panting, perspiring throng around her and looks down at her watch.
"I am starting at precisely 4:45. If you are not in my gym and ready, you may as well grab your things and go home. Got it?"
Exactly no one shows up late to the Memorial Middle School gym, located across the street from Hillsborough High. Having tested the players' conditioning, she now wants to examine their coordination.
"When you hear the whistle all balls stop! All mouths close!"
With the help of a couple of returning players, she demonstrates a mildly sophisticated layup drill involving two lines of players under the basket and one doing layups from both sides.
The drill ensues for roughly 30 seconds. Several kids are bungling it, badly. Crawford blows her whistle and laments how 90 percent of the group can't carry out her simple instruction. Suddenly, a ball bounces under one of the baskets.
"Hold that ball! One more and you're outta here!"
• • •
Over the next couple of weeks, those who survive Camp Crawford will get a peek beneath their new coach's stern veneer. They'll learn how compassion accompanies her abrasiveness. They'll laugh with her. They'll listen with star-struck silence as Clayton himself walks in on their afternoon study hall and talks to them for about a half-hour.
They'll learn Crawford has spent virtually her whole adult life raising kids not her own. Cousins, nephews, wayward prepubescents who have joined her club teams — Crawford has taken them all in. She is even legal guardian to Travis Lyons, a sophomore football and basketball player for Hillsborough.
"My heart is giving," says Crawford, who substitutes daily at Hillsborough. "Giving, giving, giving. I don't think I'll ever stop being able to give."
But on this day, less than one month before the season opener, there's no time for sympathy.
• • •
Crawford and Goodwin stand at halfcourt as the players shoot free throws around them. The layup debacle was followed by a fast-break drill — three players sprinting down the floor, passing the ball back and forth and finishing with a layup — that was equally sloppy.
Hard choices must be made on some of these kids. And soon.
"We'll put a list up on my door tomorrow morning of the kids who need to come back tomorrow," Crawford tells Goodwin.
"The come-back list," he jokes.
"We can't make any mistakes on that come-back list," she says. "We've got to go ahead and minimize this."
Joey Knight can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org