Coach was 'tough as nails,' but always fair
By STEPHANIE HAYES
Published July 21, 2007
SEMINOLE - When coach Gene Biittner was ready to get serious, his players knew.
He looked like a GI, flat-top haircut left over from the war. When players horsed around, his jaw hardened like a rock.
He didn't yell, but he was firm and consistent. Players knew where they stood.
Sunday, he died at age 80, after undergoing surgery on his neck.
Biittner coached sports at Ybor City's Our Lady of Perpetual Help High, Plant High, the University of Tampa, Seminole High and Boca Ciega High, where he is in the Athletic Hall of Fame.
He led hundreds of players.
"It's like he never forgot you," said Jim Gibson, who played for Biittner at Boca Ciega in the 1960s. "With all the kids he coached, there's no way he could have remembered us all, but he did. You just were always one of his boys."
They remember him, too.
Upon his death, letters from players flooded the Biittner home.
One came from Barry Cohen - a prominent Tampa lawyer who played basketball at Plant.
"When he said to do something, you did it," Cohen said Friday. "You didn't ask him why. You didn't complain. You just did it. He inculcated a sense of value. He was tough as nails, and yet he taught you how important it was to be fair."
Biittner was born in Schenectady, N.Y., where he tagged along on tennis lessons with his older brother.
He joined the Navy, and later attended the University of Notre Dame on a basketball and tennis scholarship.
Jean Biittner met her future husband on a street corner in South Bend, Ind.
He smelled nice.
"Guys back then didn't wear lotion like they do today," she said. "I think he was the first one I knew that wore aftershave."
They married, moved to Florida, and had five daughters.
At home, he was calm and patient. Every Mother's Day, he took his girls to the beach so Jean could have alone time.
For 18 years, he worked at St. Petersburg College, becoming dean of student services in 1975. Even then, he was the first one in the office making coffee.
He routinely donated blood, eventually giving over 19 gallons. He volunteered with the Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens. His daughter Teresa had Down's syndrome and died five years ago.
In retirement, he ran tennis programs at area clubs and played in the National Senior Olympics.
But for some, the fondest memory remains on the court - coach Biittner with his flat top, jumping like a kangaroo, coming down on your head, smiling, and running off.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or 727 893-8857.
Born: March 16, 1927.
Died: July 15, 2007.
Survivors: Wife, Jean Herman Biittner; daughters, Mary Coburn (David), Peggy Ezzo (Christopher), Patti DeLange (Keith), and Barbara Homer; brother George T.; and 10 grandchildren. Predeceased by a daughter, Teresa Ann Biittner.
Services: Funeral mass at St. Jerome Catholic Church in Largo, 10 a.m. Saturday. Reception following mass at the parish center. In lieu of flowers, donate to PARC, 3190 Tyrone Blvd., St. Petersburg, FL 33710, or the St. Jerome's Catholic Church building fund.