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Of all Tom Wasdin's Titles, Coach is his Favorite

2:25 PM, Jul 4, 2010   |    comments
Tom Wasdin, who has a world of accomplishments, still relishes being called 'coach.' (Michael R. Brown, FLORIDA TODAY)
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Article courtesy of Florida Today

"Another iced tea, coach?" the young waiter asks. 

Tom Wasdin looks up, smiles, nods. 

He hasn't coached a college or high school team since 1973, and yet calling him "coach" rests comfortably on his ears like a favorite pair of sunglasses. 

He's done a lot since 1973 -- been a developer, made millions of dollars, been a mover and shaker and difference maker in political arenas, and kept a hand in sports to help it flourish. In fact, at the end of this month, Wasdin begins a two-year term as chairman of the Florida Sports Foundation, which assists in bringing amateur and pro sporting events, like Super Bowls and BCS Championship Games, to Florida.

But coach?

No.

And yet, almost four decades later, the word resonates like a special chord, in tune with Wasdin's core feelings and philosophies.

Even his wife, Susie, refers to him as "my husband and coach."

How does he feel, after all these years and all these millions of dollars made and all these other accomplishments achieved, about still being called a coach?

He takes off a pair of oversized drugstore sunglasses that protect his eyes from the aftereffects of cataract surgery. He is 74, a man with more yesterdays than tomorrows. He leans forward. His thoughts are clear, and he searches for words to match that clarity.

"It's like being called judge or colonel," he finally says. "I think it's one of the nicest things people can call you. One of the most respected things a person can be called."

Wasdin heard the word "coach" a lot recently, when he was inducted into the Jacksonville University Athletics Hall of Fame. JU was the last place Wasdin coached, back in 1973, when he led the Dolphins' basketball team. Many of his former players returned for the induction ceremony, and it got Wasdin reflecting on that chapter of his life.

"I owe the success I've had largely to athletics," he says. "The lessons I learned from sports I've used my whole life. Teamwork, loyalty, hard work, self-improvement, sacrificing self for the good of a cause, leadership."

He pauses, thinks about all those things and forages for further explanation, if not meaning.

"People who've never played sports, you just can't explain it to them."

Humble beginnings

Wasdin grew up in rural North Florida, not in the small town of Waldo, but outside of it, on a farm without indoor plumbing or electricity. His mother died two months after his birth and his aunt and uncle, who lived down the road, raised him and his sister. He still worked on his father's chicken and produce farm, rising early before school and returning home after school for chores.

He was a very good small-town athlete, once setting a state record when he scored 52 points in a basketball game. In six-man football, he once threw 26 touchdown passes in a season and had a 78 percent completion rate, both of which became national records.

"Sports was my life," he said.

He hoped, too, that it would become his way out. But to say he charted a specific course would give him too much credit as a teenager. Wasdin remembers working one summer, as he did six days a week every summer, toiling beneath a humid, humorless sun, loading watermelons onto a truck, and thinking there had to be something better.

"I wish I could say I had a plan," he said. "My plan was to stay off the farm."

But even as he was pitching watermelons onto a truck, sweat stinging his eyes during another 12-hour workday, thinking about what he would do with his life, Wasdin also thought about the importance of his present job. Not so much the job itself, but how he approached it.

"I was the best watermelon loader you ever saw," he said. "My philosophy was, do the best you can at your present job and someone will come get you. Do that and you'll never have to apply for a job."

He went to the University of Florida, tried out for the freshman basketball team and promptly sprained his ankle, ending his playing career. Still, in 1958 he earned a bachelor of science degree in physical education, becoming his family's first college graduate. By now, he envisioned a career path as an educator, working up to a principal.

Recognizing talent

He went to work in Jacksonville's Duval County as a physical education resource teacher. It was there that he recognized a talent for recognizing talent, a resource that served him well both as a coach and later as a businessman. Traveling from school to school, teaching elementary students, he came across a couple of boys in whom he saw potential. One was Steve Pajcic and the other was Ronnie Sellers.

After meeting Pajcic, Wasdin told a faculty member that someday the kid would be Florida's governor. As for Sellers, Wasdin cajoled him into playing football.

In 1986, Pajcic, by then a Princeton alumnus who played basketball with Bill Bradley and later graduated from Harvard Law School, was the Democratic nominee for governor. Today, he runs a law firm in Jacksonville.

As for Sellers, he became an All-American wide receiver for Florida State and later an NFL player for the Patriots, Cowboys and Dolphins. Today, he runs his own insurance company in South Florida.  

 

 

 

And guess what Sellers still calls Wasdin today?

Coach.

"We were very fortunate to have Coach Wasdin as our coach," Sellers said. "He had a major impact on my life, both in and out of sports. I played for two of the greatest coaches in sports, Tom Landry and Don Shula, and there wasn't much difference in what they did and what their approach was, and how Coach Wasdin did things. Very similar."

Wasdin took kids like Sellers and the Pajcic boys -- Steve and his brother Greg, who later was an FSU quarterback and then an attorney before tragically dying four years ago, at 58, from a deer tick bite -- and molded a Jacksonville sports dynasty, first at Paxon Jr. High, then at Paxon Sr. High.

Though he coached many sports, Wasdin's passion was basketball. In 1963 and 1964, his Paxon High teams went undefeated in the Gateway Conference and twice won the Duval County championship.

Lifelong friendship

It was during those formative coaching years when Wasdin met another basketball coach by the name Joe Williams, who was coaching at Terry Parker Jr. High. Williams was an excitable young man, running up and down the sidelines, yelling instructions. At one point, the first time the two men coached against each other, Williams didn't realize he was standing in front of Wasdin and his team's bench.

"Uh, coach," Wasdin told a suddenly sheepish Williams, "don't you think you ought to be down there with your own players?"

That night, Williams inadvertently left his coat at the gym, and the next day he returned to retrieve it. He saw Wasdin, and they struck up a conversation that led to a lifelong friendship.

Wasdin left Jacksonville and Paxon High School in 1964, the year before the Pajcic boys, Ronnie Sellers and other young athletes he had groomed for years, won the state basketball championship.

He left because he'd gotten an offer from Eddie Feely, an up-and-coming Brevard County coach who later led Merritt Island High to an undefeated football season and state championship in 1973. Feely was the athletic director at a new school, Cocoa Beach High, and he hired Wasdin to be the school's first-ever basketball coach as well as its golf coach, assistant football coach and head of the physical education department. 

It was there that Wasdin met another man who would become a lifelong friend.

Wasdin was working hall duty one day when he noticed a guy in dark-rimmed glasses.

"May I help you?" he asked.

"My name is Rick Stottler," the man replied, "and I'm looking for Coach Wasdin."

The two became friends, softball-playing buddies, and later business partners, developing condominiums, subdivisions, sports complexes, government facilities, restaurants, yacht clubs and marinas. They've also put on surfing festivals and county fairs, and co-owned the Cocoa Beach Pier and Cocoa Expo.

In fact, it was Stottler who pulled Wasdin back to Brevard in 1973, seven years after Joe Williams hired him at Jacksonville University to be his assistant basketball coach and head recruiter. The year was 1966, and Williams wanted Wasdin so badly at JU that he offered Wasdin even more pay than what he was making as the Dolphins' head coach.

"I felt Tom was the most capable person I knew," said Williams, who last week retired from BCC as the school's Major Gifts Officer for the College Foundation. "I liked him. I liked his personality. I knew how energetic he was and how hard he worked, and I needed someone I could trust and who worked as hard as I did."

Wasdin immediately went to work doing what he did so well, recognizing talent and then recruiting it to JU. He brought in Artis Gilmore and Rex Morgan, both of whom went on to NBA careers. Using his Brevard connections, he signed a 6-foot-11 kid from Jim Oler's BCC Titans team named Pembrook Burrows.

"He was persistent. He came to a lot of my games at BCC," recalled Burrows, now a retired FHP lieutenant living in South Florida. "Once I got to Jacksonville, Coach Wasdin was a man of his word. He didn't recruit you and then forget about you, or what he promised. Forty years later and he's never been more than a phone call away. He's someone whom, if you call him a friend, he's a true friend. I probably wouldn't be what I am today if not for him. I owe him a lot."

Gilmore was the team's center, Burrows the power forward and Morgan the floor general at guard. JU rounded out its starting five with guard Rod McIntyre and forward Vaughn Wedeking.

In 1970, Williams and Wasdin almost pulled off a miracle. That was the year the Dolphins became the smallest school by enrollment to ever make the Final Four and then the championship game, where their David lineup went against the Goliath that was legendary coach John Wooden's UCLA Bruins.

The Dolphins lost that game, and then they lost their coach, Joe Williams, to Furman.

After Williams left, Wasdin became JU's head coach, compiling a 68-16 record over the next three years, a winning record at the time topped only by Wooden, Jerry Tarkanian and Al McGuire, all of whom became Hall of Famers.

New direction

Physically, though, coaching took its toll on Wasdin.

"So much pressure in coaching is self-induced," he said, "and I was feeling it. Just a tremendous amount of pressure and stress. I was burned out. I couldn't sleep, I had anxiety, nervousness, the shakes. My doctor told me, 'Don't worry about old age, because if you don't change your profession and get a new lifestyle, you won't have to worry about it.' "

His old friend Stottler always wanted him to come back to Brevard and go into business together, so Wasdin did. Through the years, as he made millions, he never looked back. Even still, Wasdin also never looked away from sports, either.

He's always stayed actively involved with BCC sports, practically single-handedly saving the school from eliminating athletics when that became a very real possibility this past decade. For 12 years, he was on BCC's Foundation Board of Directors, serving as president in 1992. The Wasdin Family endowed the college's first Faculty Chair for Athletes with a $40,000 contribution.

Once, to help raise money for Titan sports, Wasdin played in the BCC Marathon Golf Tournament, completing 224 holes in one day to set a state record.

He served on the Florida Sports Foundation, appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush. He served on Brevard County's Tourist Development Council, helping to bring spring training baseball here. He's a past president of the Florida Amateur Athletic Union and served on the National AAU, as well.

Through it all, through the many hats that he's worn as a businessman, philanthropist and a mover and shaker in politics and athletics, there's one hat that still fits him the best.

The one that bears the word "coach."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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