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Part of UT past guides its future

Joe Urso won a title as a Spartan player. He seeks another as the team's coach.

By FRANK PASTOR

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2001


TAMPA -- As he arrived for his first practice as Tampa's baseball coach, Joe Urso could feel the eyes on him.

Assistant coaches were concerned about preserving the program's rich tradition. Returning players were worried about losing their jobs. New players hoped for a chance to win them.

In the next moment, Urso set the tone for the season, perhaps for his tenure.

As his team prepared for batting practice, Urso went to the press box and turned on the radio. It was a luxury players enjoyed under former coach Terry Rupp.

But only on game days. Never at practice.

"All of the players just sat around and went, "Hey, this is going to be different,' " assistant coach Scott McNulty said.

Each time his players take the field, Urso reminds them to have fun. Their laid-back attitude has carried them into the NCAA Division II National Championship Series, which starts today. Three-time national champion Tampa (49-8) opens against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville (40-25) at 1 at Paterson Field in Montgomery, Ala.

Urso, who won MVP honors while helping UT to its first national championship in 1992, will try to take the Spartans back to the title game in his first year as coach.

"It's just been real special," Urso said. "Not many guys get to win a national championship as a player and then get to go back as a coach."

Urso, 30, became UT's third coach in 13 seasons when he replaced Rupp in the fall. Rupp, who took the Spartans to three national tournaments in five seasons, winning in 1998, was named coach at Maryland.

Rupp's predecessor, Lelo Prado, led UT to national titles in 1992 and '93 before leaving to become coach at Louisville in '96.

"The pressure didn't bother me at all, because that's why I came here," Urso said. "I came with expectations of playing for a national championship."

Reminders are as close as his left hand, where he wears the ring from the '92 season, or the bench, where assistants McNulty and Sam Militello sit. McNulty was an assistant in '98, and Militello was a teammate of Urso's on the '90 team that placed third.

"We're used to winning, and it's not going to stop here," Urso told his players at their first meeting. "Your goal is to get to the World Series and get the ring. Don't accept anything else."

After starring on Plant's 1988 Class 3A championship squad, he became a four-year starter and two-time second-team All-American at UT. He holds school records for walks in a season (54) and career (176).

The second baseman was at his best in the '92 tournament, hitting .563 with three doubles, a home run, and eight RBI. In 1997, he was named to the tournament's all-time team.

"I played the game full speed, because I had to," he said. "I had to play that way every day to succeed."

Urso was drafted by the Anaheim Angels and spent six seasons in the organization, getting to Double-A Midland (Tex.) in 1996. After working as an assistant with the Boise (Idaho) Hawks and Lake Elsinore (Calif.) Storm, he managed the Angels affiliate in Butte (Mont.) last season.

At each stop, Urso tried to keep things fun, asking only that players bring intensity to the field and respect the game and teammates.

"Everybody on the team respects him and listens to everything he has to say, because he's been in this situation," senior pitcher/first baseman Charlie Manning said.

At UT, Urso inherited a team that included 15 first-year players (freshmen or junior-college transfers) and just as many personalities. Yet he managed to blend them into a unit that won 15 of its first 16 games and set a school record with 49 victories.

"From the beginning, everybody knew their role and what they were going to do, and that's been huge for the team," senior pitcher David Muley said.

When junior third baseman Angel Cruz slipped into a slump that sapped 80 points from his batting average and dropped him six spots in the order, Urso kept things light.

The coach's patience, plus extra batting practice, allowed Cruz to work out of his slump. The player hit .571 in the South Region tournament, earning MVP.

Still, there was a time the players tried to test Urso. They didn't always give their best effort, particularly in the second game of doubleheaders.

After a lackluster performance against Eckerd, the coach surprised his team with news of a 6 a.m. conditioning session the next day.

"I wasn't expecting it, but I knew exactly where he was coming from," Muley said. "It was a little surprising, because we never had to run in the morning."

The 30-minute workout reminded the players that they would have to work harder to win down the stretch. UT responded with victories in 18 of its next 22 games, including a three-game sweep of Florida Southern that gave the Spartans their sixth Sunshine State Conference title.

But they, and their coach, have bigger goals in mind.

"Everybody's tired of seeing his ring," Manning said. "We want one ourselves."

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