By Don Trello
The Laker/Lutz News Correspondent
It looked like a typical NCAA Division II women’s basketball game when Saint Leo University stepped onto the court to play the University of Tampa (UT) Jan. 16 at the Bob Martinez Athletics Center.
But the coaching situation and the final score of the game were certainly atypical, as Saint Leo (8-7, 3-2 SSC) coach Nikki Jessee’s squad upset Sunshine State Conference rival and No. 15 ranked UT (11-2, 2-2 SSC) coach Tom Jessee’s team 64-44.
“We are the first couple in the history of (NCAA) basketball to coach against each other,” Tom said. “There are fathers and sons coaching against each other, but it’s different when it’s your wife. … It’s very strange to look down at the other bench and see her; it’s a weird feeling in your stomach. The strangest thing is she is going to feel sorry for beating me. We will talk a bit about the game, but the truth is it’s just another game.”
Nikki coached at Lynn University in Boca Raton from 2007 to 2009 and Tom has been at UT since 2002. Nikki was one of Tom’s assistants from 2009 to 2010 before being named Saint Leo’s coach in 2011.
“We met when I was coach at Boca Raton and started dating in 2007,” Nikki said. “We have been married 3.5 years.”
The Jessees share competitive coaching mentalities but walk an emotional tightrope when their teams play each other.
“It’s an odd feeling; I don’t know how to describe it,” Nikki said about coaching against her husband. “The competitive juices take over and you’re happy when you win, but sad for him when he loses.”
Nikki’s record against Tom is 4-4 overall, including 2-1 since she came to Saint Leo.
“Tom has built a national powerhouse at Tampa and dominated the league,” Nikki said. “Saint Leo has never had success. I came here because I know we can have success.”
Tom echoed his wife’s feelings about competing against each other and gave her unconditional support with two exceptions.
“We are both competitive people, so losing hurts,” he said. “That’s the person you go to because they are a loved one. The only difference is when you win or lose against each other. … We both have a job to do, and I want her to win every game except for the two times we play each other. It’s a very, very strange feeling in your body as a human.”
The Jessees have a daughter, Rudi, who will be 3 years old in March. Their lifestyle might be a little more hectic than other working parents because of their unique careers.
“We don’t see each other as much as other people because we are typically on different schedules at various times,” Nikki said. “We actually have to sit down and do a calendar for six months. … Tom takes Rudi to school, and I pick her up. We both take her on recruiting trips. The grandparents are at whatever game our daughter is at, and some of our players babysit.”
Saint Leo junior guard Teresa Manigrasso commented on the attention generated when the Jessees coach against each other.
“We know they are married, but it doesn’t play a factor,” she said. “I definitely feel people make too much of the coaches being married. It’s about the team and playing good basketball.”
UT senior forward Moriah Hodge indicated playing Saint Leo is a little different than against other teams because of the coaching situation.
“It’s hard not to think about the coaches being married, and I really want to win for (Tom),” Hodge said. “We see coach Nikki once and awhile at our practices, but at the end of the day she’s just the other team’s coach.”
Manigrasso led the way for Saint Leo offensively, pouring in 23 points while dishing out five assists and pulling down five rebounds. Hodge scored 13 with six rebounds for UT.
The squads will rematch at Saint Leo Feb. 20 at 5:30 p.m.
The Lions plays at SSC rival Eckerd Jan. 23 at 5:30 p.m., the same day and time the Spartans travel to conference opponent Florida Southern.
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