Just weeks shy of his 29th birthday, Ridgefield native Matt Whelan was named head basketball coach at Joel Barlow High School in Redding. That was nearly six months ago, and the 2001 RHS graduate can’t wait for the season to begin this week.
“It’s been a circular route to get from being a JV assistant coach at a small high school outside Baltimore to being in charge of the Barlow program,” said Whelan. “We missed the states last year, but my goals are not only win-loss stats, but more on getting my players confident enough to succeed and take their game to the next level.”
Whelan was huddled inside Fifty Coins restaurant when we stumbled upon each other while seeking refuge from Superstorm Sandy. He was born at Danbury Hospital and attended Veterans Park and East Ridge before entering Ridgefield High, where he was a standout captain in both basketball and football. The only child of Bill and Carole Whelan, he played wide receiver and defensive back on the gridiron and was a point guard during hoops season. He still is tied for the FCIAC record for most interceptions (four) in a game and is one of current Ridgefield football head coach Kevin Callahan’s favorites.
“You could tell right from start, that he was a leader who would, if he decided to follow the path, be an eventual coach,” said Callahan. “He took the hard route to get his chance, perseverance being a quality Matty always had. I could always rely on him.”
Basketball was his calling, though, as Whelan was a three-year varsity player (starting the final two years) and senior captain under former RHS coach Joe Kegler. Whelan then played a post-graduate year at Worcester (Mass.) Academy — his teammates included NBA players Jarrett Jack and Craig Smith — before going on to play at Gettysburg College.
”Worcester was great in that it allowed me to get a fresh perspective on the recruitment process as well as allowing me more exposure to college coaches,” said Whelan.
He was Gettysburg’s captain in his senior year and graduated with a double major (business management/physical education.) After graduation, he moved to Baltimore and began coaching at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a Catholic high school.
“I caught the coaching bug at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. It was a baptism by fire,” said Whelan. “I did whatever was needed as a JV assistant. I drove the school bus and learned a lot about life. Most of the players were from fractured homes in poorer sections outside the city. It was a great life lesson.”
Whelan traveled north for his next gig after a tip from his mother, who worked at a Ridgefield dentist’s office.
“My mom connected me with someone in Wilton youth basketball,” he said. “I got a big break, believe it or not, from coaching fifth grade youth teams in Wilton, where I met Mike Hvizdo (a former assistant at Wilton High School and now the head coach at Weston). Mike hired me last year (as a varsity assistant at Weston); we had a nice season and that allowed me the opportunity to interview for the Barlow position in June. It was a bit nerve-wracking as I had two formal interviews and it was a rigorous selection process, but I was really helped by the encouragement of the parents of Redding youth basketball players. I got hired six weeks later.”
An employee of the News Corp. organization in Stamford, Whelan credits his father as his biggest sports influence.
”My dad wasn’t a coach, he just knew his sports,” said Whelan. “My coaching influences are varied. I will say that although I’ve had great coaches, as well as a few horrible ones, I picked up something from every coach I played for or coached with.
“I want my players to feel comfortable, attack the hoop, get transition points off the defense, but most importantly know they have the freedom to talk to me anytime,” continued Whelan. “Coach Callahan and Coach Kegler gave me the confidence to succeed and never be afraid to make a mistake. Play hard and smart.”
Callahan is proud when describing Whelan.
“He’ll be successful because he’s very giving to children and is good with relationships,” said Callahan. “He has to build a program from scratch, but he possesses the aptitude, is very sharp in picking up nuances, and for me, personally, was always a coach on field. A great mindset to be a leader.
“I still remember his games, including one night against Bridgeport Central where he was 18-18 from the foul line,” added Callahan. “Also, in football, we had a game against Trumbull, and because of a few issues suddenly we had no one to play quarterback. Matty was the best athlete on the team and he stepped up. A leader then, as he is now.”