Ex-Seabreeze coach Nelson dies at 86
By BRENT WORONOFF
DAYTONA BEACH -- Former Seabreeze basketball coach Joe Nelson had a habit of talking individually to each of his players during halftime.
But not in the 1959 state championship game.
"He just stuck his head in the locker room, looked around and walked out again," said Bob Walser, a player on the team. "Nobody said a word after that. We just sat there till it was time to go out on the court."
The second half was nothing like the first. The Sandcrabs, down by 20, rallied to win the title on Duncan Dowling's 20-footer from the corner.
Nelson, who led the Sandcrabs to three state basketball championships in the 1950s and later became an administrator at the school, died Saturday after a long battle with cancer.
Nelson, 86, died at home after spending weeks at an area hospice, said Jim Simmons, a close friend and fellow coach at the school.
"Joe was just about the most-respected coach I ever played for, certainly in high school," said Larry Gagner, who went on to become an All-American football player at Florida. "He didn't have to rant and rave. He spoke to you on an intelligent level. He didn't command your respect, he just got it."
Nelson was a great athlete in his younger days. He was the star center on Mainland's 1939 state basketball championship team and pitched in the New York Yankees organization after playing both baseball and basketball at the University of North Carolina.
But his pro baseball career was interrupted by World War II. He enlisted in the Navy and was critically wounded in an air attack at Okinawa that killed 18 of his shipmates.
He tried to resume his baseball career in 1946, signing with the Boston Braves, but injured his arm late in the season. He enrolled at Stetson University the next year to finish his undergraduate degree and landed the head coaching job at Seabreeze in 1949, winning state championships in his first two seasons -- 1950 and '51.
"He really put Seabreeze on the map, so to speak," Sandcrabs athletic director Jerry Chandler said.
Nelson retired from coaching in 1960 after his team lost to eventual state champ Cocoa 58-57 in the group finals.
"We lost when our last-second tip-in wasn't allowed," Gagner said. " We went into the locker room thinking we won. Everyone figured that whoever won that game would go on to win state, and that's what happened."
Nelson remained as Seabreeze's athletic director and became an assistant principal at the school in 1969. He stayed at the school for two more decades.
"I had a great deal of love for Joe," said his coaching successor, Jack Surrette, who won a state championship in 1961 with Nelson's players. "He loved his work. He told me, 'I don't even feel like I'm working.' "
Nelson's friends say he was the kind of person who liked to make the people around him feel good, even in his final days when the pain was almost too much too bear.
"We went out to eat with him just before Christmas," said Tom Schlageter, a former student and teacher at Seabreeze when Nelson was there. "He could hardly move, but he told us stories about playing in the Yankees system, and he had us laughing so hard."
"It's a sad day today," said Marshall Bradley, who graduated from Seabreeze with Nelson's daughter, Sharon in 1965 and was later hired as a teacher and coach by Nelson.
"He was a kind, gentle loving guy you wanted to work for and be around," Bradley said. "And he was a heck of a coach . . ."
Nelson is survived by his wife Margaret, his daughter Sharon, his son Craig and three grand daughters.