Mike Walsh has pondered retirement at the end of each season for a number of years. It became a running joke within his inner circle: no one really thought Walsh would walk away from his job as Trinity Catholic’s boys basketball coach after nearly four decades, in large part because he would have no way to fill the void.
Walsh never discussed his status much after the Crusaders were eliminated from the state tournament in the second round last March, but privately again struggled with determining his future. After a meeting with two of the school’s new administrators last Wednesday, Walsh tendered his resignation, thus ending a distinguished 39-season career that saw him build a tiny Catholic school into a perennial state basketball power.
Walsh’s decision came with an important precondition: he would step down only if he could stay on as an assistant coach. Scott Smith, the school’s new principal, and Pat Brady, the new head of school, agreed to the terms.
“That’s a major part of it,” Walsh said. “The fact I will remain as an assistant and help the new coach on and off the basketball court is a major reason in my decision. A good basketball program has become a year-round thing and it’s important that you give attention and detail to that. I think I can be an assistant through the season and help the kids achieve academic success at Trinity and also help with them choosing a college.”
Walsh finishes with 633 wins, the fourth-most in state history. During that time the Crusaders reached the state final 13 times and the FCIAC championship on 11 occasions, all since 1993, when they won their first conference title. Trinity under Walsh won seven state and six league titles.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and I think it is time to move on, especially with the school going through an exciting transition time,” Walsh said. “Sometimes you just get the feeling it’s the right time and this feels like the right time.”
Starting with the arrival of Rashamel Jones a quarter century ago, Trinity became a hotbed for top players who wanted to use high school success as a springboard to future opportunities. Walsh said he has sent about 25 players to Division I programs, starting early in his career with John Smyth, who played at Princeton and later became an assistant at Trinity.
The Crusaders’ alumni list includes Jones, who went on to win a national championship at UConn, Earl Johnson (Rutgers-Iona), Torey Thomas (Holy Cross), Dave McClure (Duke), Craig Austrie (UConn) and Schadrac Casimir, who last month announced he was transferring from Iona to Florida Gulf Coast for his final year of eligibility.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and I think it is time to move on, especially with the school going through an exciting transition time. Sometimes you just get the feeling it’s the right time and this feels like the right time.”
— Mike Walsh
“Coach Walsh was everything,” said Johnson, who scored 38 points to lead the Crusaders to their first state title as a senior in 1996. “We call him coach but he is more like a father figure, for me especially. I trusted Coach Walsh with my life. He was great. He facilitated things and made it easy for us. To become comfortable at Trinity on and off the court.”
Trinity also sent dozens of players to Division II and III college programs.
Walsh was also known for a brash and outspoken style. The Crusaders became a polarizing program because so many of their best players came from outside Stamford. The dominance in the sport by so-called schools of choice continues to be an unsolved issue for the CIAC.
Many of Trinity’s top players, starting with Jones, came from nearby Port Chester. Another, Torey Thomas, who played in the state final all four years he was at Trinity, with two titles, helped lead Holy Cross to an NCAA Tournament bid. Next month he will leave to start his 12th season playing professionally in Europe, where he has continued to flourish.
“He meant a lot,” Thomas said of his former high school coach. “He gave me a platform to play ball. He put the ball in my hands halfway through my freshman year and I’ve had the ball in my hands ever since. He allowed me to mature as a point guard and leader so I’m very glad he had me. He trusted in me. That’s what I do know.”
Attention will soon turn to finding Walsh’s replacement. Brian Kriftcher, who has been an associate head coach for two years and runs the Stamford Peace youth program, is considered a leading candidate.
Walsh has been a long-time assistant baseball coach at the school and achieved additional acclaim as a Little League and Babe Ruth coach in Stamford. The father of five, he got to coach all three of his sons.
“There are so many memorable people and so many memorable teachers, administrators and fellow coaches. That’s what it is all about,” Walsh said. And the fact that my family has been able to enjoy that with me I think is important. My wife Lisa has been great. I couldn’t have done it without Tracy Nichols, my former athletic director, and all the assistant coaches, especially Jack Smyth, who was with me for 34 years.”
Johnson said one of Walsh’s most underrated strengths was managing teams that were stocked with so many scorers.
“It wasn’t just about Xs and Os,” Johnson said. “When you have that many talented kids you also have to manage egos. Talented ballplayers, you want to give them the space to show their talent, but the hardest part is keeping everybody together.”
Casimir is a former MAAC Rookie of the year at Iona, Walsh’s alma mater, and has stayed close with him. He said Walsh offered advice when Casimir was making his decision to transfer.
“He was a mentor,” Casimir said. “Showing me the right path, as he did with people before me.”
Walsh often is asked about his favorite win and always points to that first FCIAC title. He remembers it with great detail: playing unbeaten Fairfield at the Wilton Fieldhouse on a snowy night. Trinity at the same time was holding its annual father-daughter dance. But behind Jones and Bobby Spillane, who was named MVP, Walsh made the first of many additions to the school’s trophy case.
“We had about 100 people there from Trinity and 3,000 people there from Fairfield ready to crown Fairfield with the FCIAC championship,” Walsh said. “We were fortunate enough to win that.”
Walsh said knowing he will remain on the bench has provided him with comfort.
“I’ve been blessed with a lot of great players and really it has been a tremendous run, and I hope to continue to enjoy it as an assistant coach” he said. “I will do everything I can to see that the team stays on the successful path.”