Tony Cross, Belmont University alumnus and women’s basketball head coach from 1984 to 2010, died Wednesday at 64 years old.
Cross, a Knoxville, Tennessee, native, passed away in Murray, Kentucky, where he had been an assistant coach to the Murray State women’s basketball team from 2010 to 2016.
Cross is Belmont’s all-time winningest women’s basketball coach, with a career record of 544-245.
During his time at Belmont, the women’s team transitioned from NAIA to NCAA competition and had three NAIA All Americans: Aimee Smith, Kelli Davis and Chrissie Herring.
Under Cross, the women’s team also made its first trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2007.
But the most enduring part of Cross’s legacy is not the awards, the points or the firsts, but the impact he had on the people who knew him — particularly his first class of athletes at Belmont.
“I know there are a lot of articles about him being a good coach and winning records, but overall, he was a good man,” Missy Brown, Cross’s first signee, said.
It’s Cross’s character that left the greatest impact on Belmont, according to Belmont University Director of Athletics Scott Corley.
“Our entire Belmont Athletics’ family is deeply saddened by Tony’s passing,” Corley said in a statement. “Tony’s impact upon this university – and the student-athletes he coached and mentored – was profound, as evidenced by the lasting relationships he forged. Tony loved nothing more than staying connected with former student-athletes and staff members; beaming with pride as they embarked on career paths and began families of their own.”
Carla Peters agrees. Peters, one of Cross’s first three recruits at Belmont, heard the news about Cross from another one of Cross’s first recruits, Beth Bates. It’s those teammates who make the news of Cross’s passing easier on Peters.
“It’s rough, I can say that. Reflecting on the memories and trying to process it, it’s still very raw. I’m trying to stay positive and remember the great memories. We’ve had some laughs. But the support we have amongst each other has been really great,” Peters said.
Cross never had children, but Peters said the teams over the years filled that role in his life.
“He didn’t have kids, but we were his girls. He definitely wanted to make sure we were always good and were successful. And it wasn’t just us, it was our families, too,” Peters said.
Cross was a student-athlete himself, as he played basketball at Belmont and graduated in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
He continued his education at the University of Tennessee as a graduate assistant to Pat Summit and earned a master’s degree in 1984. He came to Belmont with an athletic history and a wealth of experience, but was never intimidating.
“While tall in stature, Tony was anything but an imposing figure. He was as approachable and easygoing as they come. Any measure of success our women’s basketball program has enjoyed is a credit to Tony. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, Lois, and the family,” Corley said in a statement.
And that’s exactly how Peters remembers Cross, too.
“He’s this big tall guy, and some people may think he just owns the room, but he doesn’t. He was just a very caring, charismatic person in his own right, and he had his very own sense of humor,” Peters said.
Cross extended that care to his athletes long after they graduated, impacting the direction of their lives.
Brown said Cross put her schedule together and encouraged her to take education classes even though she was not an education major.
“I think he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Brown said.
Cross was onto something: Brown is now a teacher and coach, and would frequently reach out to Cross for advice with her own team.
“He was so full of ideas about team bonding and strategies that I could use with my own team,” Brown said. “It’s never going to be quite the same for me because he was my greatest mentor.”
And with the loss of Cross, Brown has come to new realizations about the power of the profession.
“Through losing him, it’s made me realize what an impact a teacher or a coach can make on the life of a student. He made those impressions last a lifetime,” Brown said.
Peters, Bates and Brown, Cross’s first three recruits, saw their coach for the last time as a group in October of 2016. By that time, Cross was fighting cancer, but the women never stopped sending texts and making phone calls with Cross, sharing moments from their lives they knew Cross treasured.
“We’re going to miss getting those spontaneous calls and text messages. He was definitely interested in what we were doing in our lives,” Peters said.
Whenever the women spoke to Cross, he would ask them when they had last talked to their other teammates. For him, that connection was invaluable.
In the hardest moments after Cross’s passing, his athletes leaned on each other, using social media to recall their favorite moments and offer their support for their teammates.
“We’re all very successful and positive, and it’s a testament to how he ran his program and how he cared about us,” Peters said.
Photo courtesy of Carla Peters. From left: Beth Bates, Missy Brown, Carla Peters