In light of Jim and John Harbaugh meeting Sunday in the Super Bowl, here’s Vince Mercogliano’s story about local sibling coaching rivalries:
Tony DeMatteo didn’t think much of the invitation at the time. As any member of a tight-knit Italian family would tell you, it’s pretty routine for your mother to ask you to come over for dinner.
But once she got him where she wanted him, the real reason for this visit came to light.
“I’ll never forget my mother calling me — she’s an old Italian lady — and she said, ‘I want you to come over and have dinner with me,’ ” DeMatteo recalled. “She was giving me dessert, and she said, ‘I want you to let your brother win.’ I said, ‘Ma, what are you talking about?’ But she was dead serious.”
Cealia DeMatteo pleaded with her son that night to let his little brother win. At the time, Tony, who spent 31 seasons as the football coach at Roosevelt and currently coaches at Somers, had beaten his brother Don DeMatteo, the coach at Gorton for 24 seasons, every time their teams had gone head-to-head.
Don would eventually beat his big brother, setting up a rivalry that would captivate the city of Yonkers for years. But it certainly wasn’t because Tony let him win.
“It was difficult, to say the least,” Tony DeMatteo said. “I guess all brothers are close, but we were really close. … The intensity of preparation is greater. Even though you’re upset that you have to play your brother, you don’t want to lose to him.”
Like the DeMatteos in Section 1, the Harbaugh brothers, John and Jim, have taken center stage as the royal coaching family of the NFL. Their respective teams, the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, will face off Sunday in New Orleans, with a Super Bowl title on the line.
Matching wits with your flesh and blood can be both exciting and stressful, but as those who have experienced it will attest, it’s probably most difficult on the parents.
“The week leading up to the game was brutal — probably more so for my mom than anyone else,” said Blind Brook boys basketball coach Mike Welsh, whose team played a Pleasantville team coached by his younger brother Chris Welsh in the Class B quarterfinals last season. “She was a wreck.”
The Welshes have become coaching rivals since Chris took over the Pleasantville head coaching position last season. As fate would have it, they met in the playoffs in Chris’ first season, so they can relate — on a much smaller stage — to the situation that the Harbaughs find themselves in.
“Above all, it was an awkward position, because you want it to be about the kids,” Chris Welsh said. “That was a bit of an uncomfortable situation, but looking back on it, it was such a great experience because of how good the game was and how well the kids played.”
Mike’s Trojans edged Chris’ Panthers in a one-point game, and the elder Welsh hasn’t let his younger brother forget that he’s one up on him.
“I got married this summer, and he was my best man, and he actually mentioned the game in his speech,” Chris Welsh said. “It was in good fun … but he did make sure everyone knew about our little brotherly competition.”
While those siblings who have coached against each other note the pressure of competing in those games, Kevin and Brian Metcalf wish they could have had the opportunity.
Brian was the girls varsity basketball coach at Nanuet while Kevin was the boys JV coach at North Rockland for many years. Brian’s last season with the Golden Knights was five years ago, just before Kevin took over as the Red Raiders’ girls varsity coach.
Today, they work in the same gym. Kevin remains the head coach for the girls team at North Rockland, while Brian has taken over the JV program.
“I think after a game, we might feel bad (for the loser), but we have the type of relationship where it’s always challenging,” Kevin Metcalf said. “For instance, when we lost to Tappan Zee and they beat them, he was quick to remind me that the JV beat Tappan Zee and we didn’t. We get after each other pretty well. I think in some ways, as crazy as it sounds, we might like it.”
Rather than competing against each other, the Virgadamo twins have joined forces. Joe is the head coach of the Haldane boys basketball team, with his brother Tom as his top assistant. In the spring, they flip-flop: Tom assumes the role as the head coach of the baseball team, and Joe serves as his top assistant.
“He had a better jump shot than I did, and, on the contrary, he couldn’t hit a curveball,” Tom Virgadamo said with a laugh. “We can tell each other how it is, and we don’t have to beat around the bush. We don’t take it to heart when we offer each other advice.”
No matter the situation or the outcome, competition between siblings is inevitable. And while Tony DeMatteo was never willing to listen to his mother and let his little brother win, he did choose not to coach in their final meeting in the fall of 1999, when Don was battling lung cancer.
Don’s skepticism never wavered.
“The last time we played, he was in the hospital, and I wouldn’t go to the game. I went to the hospital,” Tony DeMatteo said. “After the game, Gorton had won, and my wife called me up. I woke him up and told him, and he said, ‘You threw the game,’ then he went back to sleep. Two days later, he died.”