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Veteran Wharton basketball coach Tommy Tonelli retires

The former USF point guard earned his 500th career victory at the school in December.
Former USF point guard Tommy Tonelli, left, led Wharton High to more than 500 victories and two state tournament berths in his 23 seasons as coach.
Former USF point guard Tommy Tonelli, left, led Wharton High to more than 500 victories and two state tournament berths in his 23 seasons as coach. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published Apr. 8

Longtime Wharton boys basketball coach Tommy Tonelli, who started the program in 1997 and won more than 500 games over two separate stints spanning nearly a quarter-century, announced his retirement from coaching Friday.

Tonelli, who turns 58 in May, said he’ll remain a guidance counselor at the school. His announcement comes a little more than a month after he led the Wildcats to their second state tournament appearance, where they fell to eventual Class 6A champ Stuart Martin County in the semifinals.

“I know what I put into it,” said Tonelli, a former USF point guard who also spent a dozen years on staffs at his alma mater. “I know the expectations I have for myself when I do my job as a coach, and how much I give and how immersed I am in doing the best job possible. I’m just tired. I’m not getting younger, that’s for sure.”

Hired to start up Wharton’s program in New Tampa after a decade serving on Bobby Paschal’s staff at USF, Tonelli ultimately led the Wildcats to 12 district titles, two region championships and a pair of Final Four berths. A Chicago native known for his searing intensity as a player and coach, he observed his 500th win at the school in December.

He stepped down in 2007 to become director of operations on Stan Heath’s staff at USF, but returned to Wharton two years later. Even during his absence, the Wildcats — then led by former Tonelli assistants — had a pair of winning seasons.

“I’m very, very proud of what we — capital W, capital E — were able to accomplish,” Tonelli said.

“And that goes for even the two years I didn’t coach here. I’m so proud. We’ve never in the history of Wharton basketball ever had a losing season, and hopefully we can keep that going.”

Taxed mentally by the global pandemic and its effects on his role as a counselor and coach, Tonelli said he initially pondered retirement after the 2020-21 season before reconsidering. His final team finished 28-3.

“I just didn’t want (a pandemic-altered season) to kind of be the defining exit for me,” said Tonelli, a married dad of three. “I didn’t want to go out like that. I felt like we had a really good group coming back. I just wanted to give it another run and see what we could do, and beyond my wildest expectations and dreams and it was just a magical season.”

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