WILMINGTON – Mike Gallagher recalled some of the outstanding coaches he had while he was a student and multi-sport athlete at Salesianum School in the late 1960s. Men like Vinnie Scott and Wayne Allen taught him the value of hustle, not backing down and never giving up. He had a similar experience at West Chester State College (now West Chester University).
Since graduating from college, Gallagher has been one of those coaches, leading the basketball team at Salesianum since 1988. His tenure ended earlier this month when the Sals lost in the second round of the state playoffs to Newark, but for Gallagher, 60, wins were nice but never the most important part of the job.
“I’ve never felt that it’s been that way,” he said last week in his office at Salesianum, where he is a vice principal. “Sometimes people get caught up in that being the measure of your success, but I’ve always felt that taking the guys from a group of individuals and making a team out of them, and having them build their own memories along the way” is the important part.
Gallagher’s love of competition and Salesianum came about at an early age. As a young boy growing up in St. Ann’s Parish in Wilmington, he used to talk his mother into letting him run across Augustine Cutoff to Baynard Stadium, where on Friday nights he would sneak under the fence to watch the Sals’ football team. On Sunday nights, he would do the same thing, except he would see the Wilmington Blue Bombers, a team in the Eastern Professional Basketball League that played at Sallies.
By the time he was ready for high school, Gallagher knew where he wanted to go. With seven children, the family struggled to put him and two of his brothers through Salesianum, but it was where he was supposed to be. Gallagher went on to excel at football and basketball before graduating in 1969.
“When I got here to participate, I said this was like dropping into heaven. You knew you were going to get good coaching, you knew you had to work hard in the classroom to stay eligible, and the part that I liked the most about it was you expanded your horizons,” he said.
The example of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales “in terms of modeling the mission of gentleness, humility” was a strength when he was a student and continues to this day, he said.
“I think for the most part, as I was modeling for kids and coaching kids. My goal was to have them understand that we were going to challenge you and test you to your physical limits, so you can be prepared for the things that life is going to throw at you, both on and off the court,” said Gallagher, who also has coached track and football at the school.
When he took the basketball job, Gallagher said his goals were to develop good basketball players, but he wanted to make sure they were better people “because they’re going to be people much longer than they’re going to be on the court. I felt like I was able to do that.”
Salesianum is still in search of its first state championship, but Gallagher led some outstanding teams during his tenure. He guided three teams to the state championship game and two others to the semifinals. Like any other coach, he wanted to win, but he is comfortable that so many athletes had the chance to play on a big stage against quality competition.
He said there are many memorable games from those 24 years, including winning the first-ever high school game at the Bob Carpenter Center in 1993 when a Brandon Baffone basket sent the Sals to the final.
Just this year, his team beat a talented Smyrna High School squad on a last-second shot by Frank McCusker.
36 years and counting
Gallagher decided last May, after the birth of his second granddaughter, that the 2011-12 campaign would be his last. He wanted to stay through this season because it was the 100th anniversary for the Sallies’ basketball program, and the school had several events planned to mark the centennial.
He might be handing the coaching reins over to Salesianum teacher Brandon Haley, but Gallagher is not going anywhere. After 36 years at the school, the last 28 as dean of students, he became a vice principal last summer with responsibilities for the safe schools program; the Brisson Center, which serves special-needs students; emergency and critical-incident events; assisting with facilities; and other duties.
“I’m busy all day every day. I’m not ready to retire from working yet,” he said.
The season has ended, but Gallagher still has some basketball-related work to do. This weekend, he is coaching the Blue team in the annual Blue-Gold all-star game at the Bob Carpenter Center.
Back at the office, there is college paperwork to deal with for his players, along with a computer screen filled with well-wishes from fellow coaches, former players, “even some students that I may have interacted with as dean of students in a little different way, I’m hearing well wishes and ‘thanks for how you helped me. I do a lot of things today because of what you taught me then.’”
Much of his time will be spent with his wife, Jackie, and his two granddaughters, Elizabeth, 4, and Julie, 10 months.
“I’m just really starting to think about life after coaching. My wife and I have discussed the number of ways we’re going to fill that void,” he said.
The Gallaghers will be familiar faces at a lot of high school sports and some college football games. They are thinking of getting season tickets for the University of Delaware women’s basketball team.
“You don’t have to travel too far to see great things, and that’s one of the things that we’re going to do,” he said. “We enjoy watching any kind of competition.”
He feels fortunate that he has been able to work at his alma mater, blocks from where he grew up.
“You’re in the same place where you developed your thoughts, your values, your core philosophies, and you get to share those with people,” he said.