‘I wanted to be with the kids’: Hillsborough Co. coach celebrates 50 years on basketball court

Hillsborough County

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – I bet you have heard the phrase, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” That phrase could not be more true for one middle school basketball coach, Tom Manley.

Manley is the head coach of the boy’s basketball team at Mulrennan Middle School and he has been coaching in Hillsborough County for 50 years.

While he does not run up and down the court anymore, the 76-year-old coach is still running the show five decades into it. He prides himself on teaching his players to be the best they can be and he seems to have accomplished it.

“His main thing is making us improve and become better basketball players, better men,” said Mark Cadwallader, who will be a freshman at Durant High School next year.

“It is not just for him,” explained Will Ligori, who has spent three seasons with Coach Manley. “It is for us. He tries to make us the greatest we can be.” 

“We are a family,” stated Matthew Suarez, another one of Coach Manley’s players. “It has always been a family out on the court.”

“Once a family, always a family,” is one of Tom Manley’s mantras, which is fitting because he has decades of players he has chosen to add to his family.

“Once a kid plays for me, he is mine for the rest of the time,” he said.

He served in Vietnam and, when he returned home, he immediately returned to teaching. His coaching career began at Dowdell Junior High School in Hillsborough County in 1970. It continued at Tomlin Junior High School, Plant City High School, Burnett Middle School, and, most recently, Mulrennan Middle School.

“It is confusing to me,” admitted Manley, “and I am the one who lived through it.”

Although he skipped the 2014 school year, Manley frequently pulled double duty coaching either volleyball or football in the basketball offseason.

“I wanted to be with the kids,” he said. “I wanted to coach. I love it. I love working with middle school kids. They are at an age where they are trying to define who they are and so, any help you can give them to guide them in the right direction is a plus.”

One of the players positively impacted by Coach Manley actually visited him at practice.

“I am feeling like I am going back to my second childhood,” said Keith Waters, “because all of this looks so like yesterday when I was actually out there like them training with Coach Manley.”

Waters, who is 57 years old, played for Manley as an eighth-grader in 1978. He did not know anything about basketball before the start of the season.

“He took me under his wing and he said, ‘I am going to teach you basketball,’” recalled Waters, “because I did not want to play basketball but I said, ‘I think I will be alright in it.’”

They won a county championship together, the first of five for Manley.

“God has been good to me. He has given me some really good athletes over the years,” said Manley. “I still love the game and I participate in the game through them. They are me playing the game and so, as a result, I haven’t stopped.”

When he does decide to blow the whistle on his 50-year coaching career, you will find him sitting in the stands, cheering for his former players, his current family.

“Just to watch them go on and go to the games and sit with the parents,” said Manley, “and just love it, just enjoy seeing them be successful.”

I spoke to three of his players from this past season, Mark Cadwallader, Will Ligori, Matthew Suarez. They have all played for Coach Manley for multiple seasons so they have plenty of stories to share about him.

First and foremost, I asked them what they learned from him.

They talked about some of his quirks, too.

We all have them and Coach Manley is not the exception.

Finally, I asked them what they will miss the most about their middle school basketball coach. They have graduated from Mulrennan Middle School and will be freshmen at Durant High School this coming school year.

They would like to continue their basketball careers at the high school level and, thanks to Coach Manley, they will enter those tryouts with an exceptional foundation.

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