If you are a relative newcomer to Tampa and Hillsborough County, you may not be fully acquainted with the rich sports history here.
I mean, sure, you know we like to talk a lot about stadiums. You surely know about the Bucs, Lightning and Rays.
You are aware that the New York Yankees spend spring training here. But do you know that arguably the best high school wrestling program in the country for the last three decades is at Brandon High School, under the direction of coach Russ Cozart?
Have you heard of Joe Urso, head baseball coach at the University of Tampa? He has won more than 700 games and four Division II national championships.
Tampa’s history in youth baseball is among the best in the land. High school football is woven into the fabric of life here, but so is golf, tennis and so much more.
That’s where the Sports Club of Tampa Bay comes in. The organization has been around since 1960, when it was known as the Tampa Sports Club. The founders were relentless advocates for sports of all kinds.
Local civic icon Leonard Levy was the club’s first president.
"We actually started out as an Optimist Club, but most of our members were more interested in sports," he said. "They didn’t want to get involved in things like oratorical contests and bicycle safety. They wanted to be involved with sports."
The focus was on the city’s youth and high school programs, along with the University of Tampa Spartans, but then pro sports began to arrive in the mid-1970s and the club changed along with the city.
Some of the original members became less involved. Potential younger replacements were busy building their careers and families. And pro teams aren’t always chummy.
It took a while to turn that around, but it’s working. Young people have gotten involved again, giving the club renewed energy. There are more women in the club than before. In 2014, Barbara Sparks-McGlinchy became the first female president in club history.
"She really took us up a notch," past president Mark Donohue said.
Those efforts helped the club continue to raise large amounts of money for local charities, most notably the city’s Boys and Girls Clubs.
"We are building relationships with the professional franchises, and they have been great. Right now, I would say it is a very collegial thing," Donohue said.
The highlight event though, as always, is the Hall of Fame dinner. This year’s event will be held Wednesday at TPepin’s Hospitality Centre, where the club’s newest Hall of Fame members will be honored.
That includes Vincent Lecavalier of the Lightning, Rays announcer Dewayne Staats along with Cozart and Urso. Rays founding owner Vince Naimoli will be given a lifetime achievement award.
Major League Baseball has sent a $5,000 donation to the club’s charitable outreach in Naimoli’s honor.
That cross-section of inductees symbolizes the bond between a city and its sports that stretches across decades.
I had a front-row seat for a lot of it, starting in the mid-1970s as a sports writer for the Tampa Tribune.
I saw Wade Boggs as a Plant Panther, and then in Cooperstown when he joined the baseball Hall of Fame. I remember how Hillsborough High alum Dwight Gooden turned baseball on its ear.
Remember the night when the University of Tampa basketball team beat defending national champion North Carolina State at the Martinez Center? It happened.
USF’s men’s basketball history includes outstanding players like Doug Aplin, Charlie Bradley and Radenko Dobras. Adding football helped USF transition from Drive-Thru-U to the economic and educational powerhouse it is today.
The Tampa Sports Club was big part of all that, and the Sports Club of Tampa Bay continues that tradition by linking the city’s vast sports history to the present.