who leaves behind a wife, Debi, and two sons, Shane and Jesse -- began as colleagues, moved on to being co-workers and forged a friendship through soccer based on mutual respect and admiration.
The pair met at various coaching symposiums through the years and eventually worked together on a couple of occasions. When Ellinger coached the U.S. national B team, Fitzgerald served as his assistant. Later the roles were reversed as Ellinger briefly served as Fitzgerald's assistant with the Crew.
"He was in the game for the right reasons," said Ellinger. "It was never about money so much as it had to make sense. He did a lot of voluntary stuff with clubs and way back when, before you had the director of coaching and all that stuff, Tom was doing those kinds of things."
Fitzgerald had recently returned to Florida for a second stint at the University of Tampa, where he won an NCAA Division II national championship in 1994 before his professional coaching career took off with the Crew in 1996. Ellinger points out that the move was based more on Fitzgerald's desire to be near his family than on coaching. His two sons are both now living in the Tampa area.
"It was a good time for the Fitzgeralds," said Ellinger. "I'm obviously very sad for his family. I think when he moved back it was for priorities that he had determined in his life. He had finally put family first and just made it happen. He loved Tampa, loved UT and I think it's important for people to know that about Tom."
Ellinger's relationship with Fitzgerald goes back some 20 years and the pair became very close away from the game as well. Ellinger, who until recently was the coach of the U.S. under-17 national team based in Bradenton, Fla., became attached to Fitzgerald's family, even staying with Tom and his wife, Debi, during his time in Columbus. In fact, he has been asked to speak at a memorial service for Fitzgerald on Tuesday in Tampa. Ellinger will remember Fitzgerald as a kind and giving person as well as an accomplished coach.
"Tom was a guy who, if you were his friend, you were his friend for life," he said. "Not many people can say they won national titles at two levels. Everybody liked him as a person. He was one of the best-liked coaches around, had great relationships with his peers and players. Overall, it's just very sad."
Jonathan Nierman is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.