TAMPA - It has been eight years since Tom Fitzgerald stood on the sidelines of Pepin Stadium as coach of the University of Tampa men's soccer team. Tonight, the legendary Spartans coach, who was inducted into the Sunshine State Conference Hall of Fame last fall, makes his anticipated return in UT's home opener against Webber College.
In his nine seasons at Tampa (1987-95), Fitzgerald led the Spartans to five Sunshine State Conference championships, three NCAA Division II Final Four appearances and the 1994 national championship.
After successful stints in Major League Soccer, where he coached the Columbus Crew (1996-2001) to three consecutive Eastern Conference finals, and Division I soccer, guiding UCLA to its first Pac-10 championship and a national championship in 2002, Fitzgerald returns to where he calls home.
"I'm very happy to be back in Tampa," Fitzgerald said. "If there is a home field for me, obviously this is where it's at."
Tampa's soccer tradition carried on in Fitzgerald's absence. UT won a second national title under Keith Fulk in 2001, going 19-0-2. But the program struggled the past two seasons under coach Dawson Driscoll, who went 12-15-5 before resigning with four games left last season.
With roots that run deep throughout the Bay area soccer community, Fitzgerald's return has created an excitement among Spartan fans and alumni. The four-time SSC Coach of the Year brought back former players Eric Sims and Adrian Bush, the 1994 Division II Player of the Year, as assistants. He also welcomed about 40 former players for an alumni game held last week.
Tampa enters today's home opener at 1-1, bouncing back to defeat Spring Hill, 4-1, on Sunday after losing the opener to West Florida, 3-1, on Friday. Excitement and expectations remain high but the veteran coach won't make any predictions on the team's future just yet.
"Right now I'm just looking for consistency and organization," he said. "Traditionally I have been very organized and my teams have been in shape. I'd like us to be as fit, if not fitter, than other teams.
"Those two things will keep you in every game."
The Spartans are coming off their most successful season, having made the NCAA Division II playoffs for the first time in 2003. Entering his third year with the program, coach Bobby Johnston is eager to improve on last year's school best 16-6 record and second place conference finish.
The Spartans got off to a good start over the weekend, defeating Wingate 4-0 and Belmont Abbey 2-0 in two home games. But with greater success comes greater expectations and Johnston plans to test his team early, scheduling tough non-conference games against four top 25 teams.
Tampa returns 10 starters including sophomore Samantha Robinson, who led the team with nine goals and set a school season record with 11 assists. The team has experience, but 15 of 25 players are underclassmen.
"We're deep as far as talent; it's just going to hard to find the right mix on the field. That will come on a game by game basis," Johnston said. "I look for personality and team chemistry the most."
While that formula brought success last year, Johnston knows his team might have had the advantage of sneaking up on its opponents. With the recognition UT earned around the league and region last season, he is concerned with keeping the team humble and hungry.
Tampa was picked to finish second in the SSC preseason poll behind Barry.
"We haven't achieved anything yet this year," he said. "The girls know there is a lot to be accomplished and they've embraced those challenges."
A 12-day trip to Sweden in July gave Tampa an opportunity to compete against professional teams and raise its caliber of play. Johnston said the trip united the team and exposed the players to a style of soccer unknown to them. Sophomore midfielder Kara Rasmussen said she came away with a greater appreciation for the game and also for an American-style breakfast.
"It was rough adjusting to the quickness and speed of their game and how much they moved when they were away from the ball," she said. "The toughest thing we had to adjust to off the field was eating a breakfast with ham and caviar and warm milk."
The family atmosphere surrounding the team didn't end in Sweden. Johnston's wife, Ann, gave birth to son Liam Aug. 7, one day before the players reported to practice. Johnston jokes that his three-week-old baby boy has 25 sisters to look out for him.