TAMPA — Joe Fenlon did something Saturday afternoon that no Tampa Bay area boys basketball coach has come close to doing: He won his 800th career game.
Looking pretty much like he always has, fit and thin, the 59-year-old Fenlon did it with his usual fire and intensity, up and down out of his seat, loudly encouraging his players (and sometimes the refs), before ultimately beating visiting King 64-34.
It was a victory that came 38 seasons after his first in 1983 over now-defunct St. Petersburg Lutheran. And it came on the court named for him.
Every victory in between — for an average of more than 21 victories a season — has come at his beloved Tampa Prep, where he took a moment on Saturday to thank pretty much everyone, including: his wife, Cindy; assistants and players through the years; his kids, Mychael and Conner, the latter of whom played for him and later served as assistant coach; and even his 1-year-old granddaughter, Dylan, whom he held while giving his heartfelt speech in the middle of the court.
“There is the adage that it takes a village and I have had the fortune of doing this with 38 different wonderful villages,” said Fenlon, who also serves as the associate head of school and head of middle school. “What really makes this special is that it happened all at the same place. Eight hundred is a large number, and everyone who helped win one of those games is part of that number.”
A large number indeed. Only one other coach in Florida history, Ed Kershner, who retired from Oviedo in 2017, is listed ahead of Fenlon on the all-time victory list. Kershner finished with a record of 901-377 in 45 seasons, but not all in Florida. After moving from Indiana in 1980, Kershner won 783 games in this state coaching at four schools.
For victories while coaching strictly in the state, Fenlon’s 800 ranks No. 1. Gainesville High’s Kelly Beckham boasts more than 770 victories, but no one else is seriously in the conversation.
“I’m not really thinking about that,” said Fenlon, smiling. “How about 801?”
Saturday’s victory puts Fenlon well ahead of the area’s next highest career leader for boys’ basketball, Lakewood’s Dan Wright, who finished with 686. Among active area coaches, Fenlon comfortably leads Jesuit’s Neal Goldman (641) and Tampa Catholic’s Don Dziagwa (610).
“I was so fortunate at the age of 21 to be given the job here,” Fenlon said. “Tampa Prep turned out to be a place that I was able to grow as a person, a coach, a father, a husband, a teacher, all of it. I am so blessed and appreciative.”
He added that he was so happy that the 800th victory came with this year’s team, “who came in with all the high expectations that we always have here, and they have come in every day and worked as hard as they possibly could. I love this team.” After Saturday’s victory, the 2020-21 Terrapins improved their record to 11-8.
There was a brief time many years ago that Fenlon thought about leaving to follow the same path to college coaching as his brother, Bill, who is in his 28th season at DePauw University, where he owns a 459-281 overall record.
But Fenlon went with his heart and stayed a Terrapin.
Along the way he has won a state title (2012), reached nine state semifinals and five state finals, coached many premier players, including Casey Sanders (Duke), Anddrikk Frazier (USF), and Juwan Durham (Notre Dame), and hundreds of others who have gone on to become doctors, lawyers and successful businessmen.
“Thank you,” Fenlon said. “Thank you to everyone for everything.”