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As USF’s season tips off, Jose Fernandez already has conquered his toughest foe

A brutal bout with diverticulitis threatened the life of the Bulls women’s basketball coach.
USF women's basketball coach Jose Fernandez reacts while watching his team's season opener Tuesday night against Texas Rio Grande Valley at the Yuengling Center. The Bulls won, 63-56.
USF women's basketball coach Jose Fernandez reacts while watching his team's season opener Tuesday night against Texas Rio Grande Valley at the Yuengling Center. The Bulls won, 63-56. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Nov. 10, 2021

TAMPA — Once again, Jose Fernandez’s team oozes depth and diversity. Ten countries and four continents are represented on his latest USF women’s basketball roster, which seems bereft of a soft spot.

These Bulls, whom many consider egregiously undervalued (21st) in the Associated Press preseason rankings, can score and scrap, defend and distribute. Tempo matters little; Fernandez’s team is equipped to go at a half-court or high-octane pace.

“There’s going to be a a lot of people dressed up that aren’t going to play, that are talented,” Fernandez acknowledged recently from his memento-filled office on the second floor of the Muma Center. “I don’t know who it was that said, ‘Just because you dress up for Halloween doesn’t mean you get the candy you want.’ It’s just like playing time.”

Fernandez, who turns 50 on Nov. 18, is relaxed — even mildly radiant — on this bright morning, six days before his 22nd season as Bulls coach formally tips off. Casually bedecked in a green USF polo tucked neatly in khaki shorts, he looks trim, which stands to reason. This new season has a new lease on life affixed to it.

On this day, Fernandez is assessing his depth. Six months ago, he was assessing his death.

For more than a decade, Fernandez has waged periodic battles with diverticulitis, a ruthless intestinal disorder. The latest flare-up resulted in the most excruciating pain of his life, a high-risk surgery and the mortal dread of cancer.

“He would say things to me like, ‘Am I gonna die?’ said Tonya Fernandez, his wife of 14 years.

’Just absolute horrific pain’

Fernandez’s condition is known as diverticulosis, which occurs when small, bulging pouches (diverticula) form in the digestive tract. When the pouches get inflamed or infected, the condition is called diverticulitis.

Fernandez said he knows a handful of other fellow coaches who have grappled with the condition, suggesting it could be triggered by stress. Among them: Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma.

“They can get infected for many different reasons: stress, food, medications, we don’t even really know,” said Dr. Dusty Narducci, USF team physician and assistant professor at USF’s Morsani College of Medicine.

Stress can trigger diverticulitis, and Jose Fernandez had a life-threatening flare-up after last season ended.
Stress can trigger diverticulitis, and Jose Fernandez had a life-threatening flare-up after last season ended. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“And when they do get infected, it’s just absolute horrific pain. You have every different (gastrointestinal) symptom you could imagine, from nausea to vomiting. You’re not able to tolerate or keep food down.”

Fernandez’s first bout with diverticulitis sidelined him for the 2009-10 season opener — a Friday the 13th — against Florida A&M. It also struck him the spring of 2010, upon his return from the Women’s Final Four in San Antonio. He missed a loss at Louisville on Feb. 2, 2014.

But his latest episode was by far the worst.

He and Tonya had planned to go to dinner with USF deputy athletic director Lelo Prado and his wife, Pam, the night of April 7. But they backed out when Fernandez came home from work that afternoon feeling lousy. By around 10 p.m., the pain felt like “a sword stuck into your intestines and stomach, and someone’s just turning that sword,” Fernandez said.

“The most dangerous thing about diverticulitis, when you have an episode and you have that pain, your intestines can perforate,” Fernandez said. “So when they perforate, if you don’t get to the hospital you’re going to die.”

He and Tonya sped from their Lutz home to AdventHealth Wesley Chapel, but after waiting roughly an hour (COVID-19 was on the cusp of another surge), Fernandez no longer could tolerate the pain. Tonya called Narducci, who works at Tampa General Hospital and arranged for Fernandez to be treated there.

She estimates she made the 24-mile drive in her Lexus SUV in 20 minutes.

“He would lay the (passenger) seat back and then up,” Tonya said, “and he was just crying and in excruciating pain the whole way.”

April 7 had segued to the wee hours of April 8 when Fernandez finally was treated. Initially, doctors administered pain medication, flushed his system with antibiotics and ran some tests. That’s when panic supplanted the pain.

Jose Fernandez has faced his share of personal and professional adversity, but this last health scare rattled him. “I’ve been in a lot of situations in my life growing up, and some scary situations said. “But this was the first time I was really, really afraid of death.”
Jose Fernandez has faced his share of personal and professional adversity, but this last health scare rattled him. “I’ve been in a lot of situations in my life growing up, and some scary situations said. “But this was the first time I was really, really afraid of death.” [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The tests revealed a mass near Fernandez’s colon.

“We were kind of between, is this colon cancer, or is this like when you have an infection or diverticulitis for so long, you can get what looks like a mass in there,” Narducci said.

“We couldn’t really tell. The only way to tell is to go in there and actually biopsy it, but we couldn’t do that because it was such an infection. He had sepsis, his whole body was infected.”

Fernandez was sent home to rest and allow the infection to subside. More than a month passed. His dread spiked as the inflammation dissipated.

“During that time frame,” Tonya recalled, “Jose swore he had colon cancer.”

For more than two decades, the mantra of staying stout amid adversity had served Fernandez well. It enabled him to salvage a crumbling program he inherited as a 28-year-old Division I novice in the fall of 2000, when predecessor Jerry Ann Winters was fired amid charges of discriminating against Black players.

It forged resilience — and a WNIT berth — in the 2018-19 season, when the worst injury outbreak of Fernandez’s career left him with fewer than 10 healthy players (and only one opening-night starter) for much of the season’s final stretch.

It kept him plugging away for those 15 years when USF resided in the same conference as national juggernaut Connecticut, rendering any hope of a league title remote at best. In that span, USF qualified for the NCAA Tournament six times.

“I’ve been in a lot of situations in my life growing up, and some scary situations,” said Fernandez, born and raised in Miami. “But this was the first time I was really, really afraid of death.”

Ultimately, the inflammation went down, allowing a colonoscopy to be performed. The mass turned out to be mounds of scar tissue, presumably from the previous diverticulitis episodes. Cancer was ruled out by a team that included Narducci, colorectal surgeon Dr. Robert Bennett and Dr. Renee Marchioni Beery, a gastroenterologist.

“We walked out of there, and he had tears in his eyes,” Tonya said. “He was so happy.”

Not out of the woods

USF women's basketball coach Jose Fernandez was hospitalized nine days at Tampa General Hospital following complications from surgery for diverticulitis. During that extended stay, he kept tabs of the number of laps (147) he walked around his floor.
USF women's basketball coach Jose Fernandez was hospitalized nine days at Tampa General Hospital following complications from surgery for diverticulitis. During that extended stay, he kept tabs of the number of laps (147) he walked around his floor. [ Photo provided by Jose Fernandez ]

On June 22, Fernandez was wheeled into surgery, where Bennett — also on the USF faculty — would remove the portion of intestine affected by the mass and diverticulitis. Tonya was told the procedure would last roughly three hours.

It took more than six. The affected intestinal area had become cemented to his bladder, and a blood source for the area had stopped functioning, resulting in more than a foot of intestine being removed, according to Fernandez. The insertion of a colostomy bag became a possibility.

“It was just so emotional,” Narducci said.

“We were having these conversations with them like, ‘We’re going to figure this out. We’ll get you back to next season even if there’s a bag.’ We ended up not having to put the bag in, it ended up just having to repair the intestine and take a piece out that was so infected.”

The surgery was successful and Fernandez’s response to it seemed fine — initially. The second night after the procedure, fluids began accumulating internally, affecting his breathing. A thin nasogastric (NG) tube was inserted through his nose, down his esophagus and into his stomach. It remained there four days.

“Basically, his body was filling up with fluids because his intestinal tract wasn’t removing things properly,” Tonya said.

“When he had the NG tube and all that, he told me, ‘You need to go home and get things together, this isn’t good.’ And I was talking to the doctors on the side and I’m like, ‘Is there a chance that his system may not start?’ And they said, ‘Yes, there is.’ It was ugly.”

Turned out, Bennett had removed only the intestinal flotsam, not the fortitude. Informed that movement is critical to re-booting the intestinal track, Fernandez began walking laps around his hospital floor. On June 26, the day the NG tube was inserted, he did a lap. A day later, he did 21.

After nine days and 147 laps, Fernandez was discharged. The following day, he went back to work.

“He was a rock star,” Tonya said.

On Tuesday, the Bulls opened the 22nd season of the Fernandez era with an underwhelming 63-56 win against Texas Rio Grande Valley, the 393rd of his career. On Monday, they face Tennessee in Knoxville. When they travel to the Bahamas later this month for separate showcase events, they’re almost certain to face three of the four teams (Stanford, UConn, South Carolina) that reached last season’s Final Four.

Fernandez will enter that daunting stretch with no restrictions on his diet or activities. Some scar tissue lingers, and a mild hernia near his navel will have to be addressed at some point, but not right away.Stress levels remain a concern to Tonya and Narducci, but those concerns lurked before his ordeal.

“He’s good to go now,” Tonya said. “Watch out.”

Watch for his team also. Though residents of a less-heralded league (American Athletic Conference), the Bulls are the kind of scary-good foe capable of knocking off a national heavyweight when all is clicking. Fernandez loves facing those types of teams early in the season, to gauge the Bulls’ talent level and build their postseason resume. Always has.

The most poignant season of his life is no exception. Even with fewer intestines, the dude’s still got the guts to face all-comers.

“I think this was such an amazing thing that happened to him in the sense of becoming even healthier than he already was, and realizing how supported he is,” Narducci said. “I think he came out of this even better, so I think he’s just going to be stronger, I really do.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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