A group of 20 or so older men stood behind their former mentor, leader, and basketball coach Tuesday afternoon as he prepared to coach his final game at McNair Academic High School in Jersey City.
“Usually, when you get a group like this, it’s for a wake,” veteran McNair boys’ basketball coach Mike Reilly said, right before the Cougars were to face Brearley Regional in Reilly’s final game after 28 years at the school. “But this is definitely more like a celebration.”
Before the game, Reilly received a plaque that had an inscription that read: “In appreciation for your 28 years of service to the students of Jersey City, thank you for your blood, sweat, tears and cheers.”
“I was expecting just another day at the office,” Reilly said. “But then all these people showed up. It was nice. Memories like this, they can’t take away and for me, the memories are the people that I’ve met over the years through coaching. I really had a wide range of emotions.”
The Cougars sent Reilly off as a victorious coach and did so in thrilling fashion. After trailing for most of the game – and at one point, they were down by 13 – the Cougars stormed back in the second half and came away with a 62-49 win, the 326th of Reilly’s career as basketball coach at McNair Academic. The Cougars ended Reilly’s final campaign with a 6-15 record.
Reilly remembers taking over a fledgling program in 1983 at a school that was still in its infant stages with no permanent home.
“We were pretty bad,” Reilly said. “We were oh-fer the first year.”
Meaning that the Cougars were winless, losing all 19 games.
“We would have had a tough time beating the seventh period gym class,” Reilly said.
But Reilly soon turned around the program’s misfortunes.
“By the third year, we went on a little roll and we then qualified for the [NJSIAA Group I] state tournament 15 years in a row,” Reilly said. “One year, we finished 19-5 and went to the sectional semifinals.”
The last few years, the wins have come harder and harder. Reilly took the Cougars out of the new-fangled Hudson County Interscholastic League because he knew his team simply could not be competitive, opting for an independent slate instead. He knew that his time as a coach was drawing to an end.
“I don’t feel like I’ve coached my last game ever,” Reilly said. “I could never walk away from the game. I love the game, love going to games.”
It’s a fact. There’s no bigger basketball fan than Reilly, who when he’s not coaching, can be spotted at basketball games all over the area, both on the high school and collegiate level.
“It’s just time for me to fly,” Reilly said. “I needed a change. The time had come.”
Reilly said that he will leave the McNair Academic program in good hands, with former player Dennis Addison more than likely taking over the reins.
“I wouldn’t mind being a college assistant coach somewhere or maybe on the high school level with someone I know,” Reilly said.
Reilly has enjoyed an incredible coaching career in the Jersey City public school system. He’s the only Hudson County coach to record at least 100 coaching wins in four different sports – boys’ basketball, baseball and soccer and girls’ tennis. That’s some achievement in its own right.
McNair Academic athletic director Hugh Dwyer has developed a close bond with Reilly over the years.
“He’s definitely a throwback coach,” Dwyer said of Reilly. “He’s from a different time. He’s a great coach, but an even better man. He would literally give the shirt off his back to help a kid. I can’t even begin to put it into words how much he cares about the kids. He’s so unbelievably dedicated that he helps kids from other schools as well. He’s one guy that we’re really going to miss around here, because he’s the best.”
Craig Harris is currently a Trenton police officer, but from 1991 through 1995, he played for Reilly. He made sure he was among the 20 or so former players who returned to pay homage to Reilly.
“Coach Reilly taught me discipline, taught me poise and taught me determination,” Harris said. “It was a pleasure to play for him. He’s a great teacher, both on and off the court. He absolutely guided me down the right path. He’s just a great teacher all around.”
Patrick Healy is the son of Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy. He also played for Reilly from 1998 through 2002 and was a standout player for the Cougars.
“First off, he’s a great guy,” Healy said. “He taught us a lot about life as well as basketball. We did the best with what we had. The main thing was that Coach Reilly was always great with all the kids. I had a ball playing for him.”
Healy made a point to remind people that Reilly is currently the coach with the second-longest tenure in all of Hudson County – of course, trailing only the legendary Bob Hurley at St. Anthony.
“Think about it, for 28 years, think of all the hours Coach Reilly spent coaching in summer leagues, practices, doing it year round,” Healy said. “It’s truly amazing.”
“Seeing Craig Harris again, that was really special,” Reilly said. “People like Jason Reed came back. Pat Healy told me that he didn’t know if I could get that many people back if I died. That’s what’s good about this, seeing the good people again.”
Reilly remembered some of the coaches he worked with over the years, guys like Eddie Butler and Dan Waddleton, true Hudson County basketball legends.
“I had the right people to learn from,” Reilly said.
Reilly was asked what was going through his head as he coached his final game.
“The little things hit you, like when I was standing with the team for the National Anthem or sweeping the floor before the game,” Reilly said. “Or when the AD [Dwyer] puts his arm around you and tells you that you did a good job. Those are the things I’ll remember.”
Not to mention, one more victory.
“I walked out of there with a new positive feeling,” Reilly said. “Things don’t change much. I’m a basketball fan. This was all a true labor of love. Basketball has always been my classroom. It’s nice to know that I did something special.”
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.