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Tom Ryan’s last season as Eckerd men’s basketball coach plays out

Ryan has been a Triton his whole career, from basketball player, to assistant, to head coach. Now he’s taking the next step: athletic director.
Tom Ryan has been a mainstay with the Eckerd men's basketball program, even before 1996, when he first became the head coach. (Times file)
Published Dec. 27, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Tom Ryan was set on being a banker. So when then-Eckerd College basketball coach Jim Harley approached him after his junior year in 1986 about perhaps becoming an assistant coach after graduation, Ryan politely turned him down.

"At that time, Barnett Bank was big and they had a big training program," Ryan said. "So I told him no, I'm going to graduate and work for Barnett Bank and make money."

A year later, Ryan had a change of heart. The scrappy guard who came to Eckerd from Fort Lauderdale didn't want to quit on basketball. That meant making almost no money to stick around, but he was willing to do it.

"It was like, 'Oh, that's it, basketball is done,' " Ryan said. "So I decided to stay and I got a stipend to be the intramural director. Coach Harley came up with $4,000 to be an assistant basketball coach. And I was the assistant tennis coach. So I made $10,000 and I got benefits. That's all I needed. I lived with two buddies and we ate a lot of pasta and ramen noodles."

For the next eight years, Ryan worked his way up from assistant to the assistant to full-time assistant. He was Harley's right-hand man, and in his final years as an assistant he was calling the defenses.

There were several Eckerd assistants in the past who thought they might succeed Harley, who started the program in 1963. They all went on to other schools. Ryan thought that might be his fate in early 1996, when he told Harley he was thinking about leaving.

"We were driving back from a recruiting trip and we were just past the Dome, the Thunder Dome then," Ryan said. "I told him that I think it's time for me to find another job. He said, 'Let's talk some more about it. This is going to be my last year.' By April (1996) I was the head coach."

Ryan didn't skip a beat. He has been the Tritons' head coach for 22 years. He has won five Sunshine State Conference championships, qualified for the Division II tournament 11 times and was named the National Association of Basketball Coaches Coach of the Year in 2001.

But at the end of this season, Ryan will begin yet another chapter in his Eckerd College career. After 17 months as the interim athletic director, he will become the full-time AD, taking over for Bob Fortosis.

Ryan has already moved into a new office as he juggles the duties of athletic director and head coach. He will be a part of the search committee to find just the third basketball coach in the 55-year history of the program.

"We're starting the search now," Ryan said. "We'd like to name somebody when the season ends (in March)."

For now he is fully invested as coach. Beginning Saturday, Eckerd (9-2) enters the conference part of its schedule. Ryan is all too familiar with the January and February routine of playing conference games every Wednesday and Saturday.

"I'll miss the camaraderie of winning and losing," Ryan said. "I'll miss the locker rooms. I'll miss the practices. I won't miss the games a whole bunch. I get really nervous before games until the jump ball. And those 7:30 games, I just sit around all day and agonize about knowing everything, are you prepared? I get so uptight."

Ryan said once he settles in to his new job he will start to work on some priorities. He said one push is to get coaches' salaries to the median level of the other schools in the Sunshine State Conference. He would also like to see scholarship levels for baseball, softball and golf rise the conference's median level.

In March, renovations will begin on the McArthur Complex, where the basketball court and offices are located. And down the road, Ryan said he would like to see renovations to the Turley Athletic Complex where baseball, softball and soccer are located.

"Hopefully that will be before I retire," he said.

The new year will bring new challenges for Ryan. He admits he's not exactly sure what to expect.

"The next three months are going to be interesting," Ryan said. "For me it's going to be a totally different world. Not the basketball part of it, but the search. Then after that it's going to be different not watching summer AAU ball. It might be fun or it might be boring."

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