Athlete to coach: a Lion for Life

Recent alumni return as relatable coaches


Photo by Jack Krowczyk

High school sports are some of the best memories for many student athletes, and, for some graduates, these experiences are so positive that they decide to come back after college. Saint Viator has a rich history of alumni coming back to work at the school they spent four years at as a student, and recently many coaches have done the same.

“[I came back] because it was something I wanted to do to stay around the game, it was an opportunity to get to know the students on a deeper level and hopefully make an impact on their game and experience in high school,” said Mr. Jason Wilhite ‘15, the freshman baseball coach and campus minister.

Some of the coaches were able to play their sport at the collegiate level, but those who did not found it difficult going from playing five to six days a week during their season to not at all their freshman year of college.

“When you have your last game as a player, it’s tough to go to the other side,” said Mr. Wilhite. “In a sport like baseball, it’s not common to play pick up or intramural games, so there aren’t many opportunities to play full games if you’re not in an organized league.”

Most coaches struggle to earn respect, but it’s even harder when you’re not too much older than the players you have to instruct. However, student athletes under these young alumni coaches feel that they bring something more important than a strong reputation—an ability to relate.

“They know how it feels,” said junior John Kaiser, who has played football, basketball, and baseball since his freshman year. “They know how it feels because they know the program, they know the school, they know how it feels to be in your shoes. They’re closer to you because they get it, they understand how it can be stressful at times and know when to push you and when they need to be a guide or bring a sense of comfort because they just did what we’re doing.”

According to the school website, 85 percent of students at Saint Viator participate in a sport, and many of these student athletes understand the struggle of balancing practices, games, and team events with a full class workload and other student activities. Having a coach who has recently dealt with the exact same thing can be very beneficial to our student athletes.

“I always feel like I can talk to them,” said freshman football and basketball player Dayvion Ellis. “Sometimes players, especially freshmen, are scared to talk to the coaches but younger coaches are very good at opening up a line of communication that makes the players feel comfortable about asking them questions.”

The reason so many young alumni come back to coach is because of the connection between them and these teenage athletes.

“Saint Viator has always been a second home to me,” said Mr. Michael O’Keeffe ‘07, the varsity boys basketball coach. “I grew up right down the street, attended football and basketball games since I was in third grade, and had a tremendous experience as a student athlete. When the head coach position became available in 2020, it was a no-brainer to pursue the opportunity so I could give back to the program and school community that helped shape me into the person I am today.”
Every sport is constantly changing. The way it was played five years ago is not necessarily the same way the current players are playing today; however, younger coaches are more willing to adapt to these changes.

“Coach [O’Keeffe] understands that the game changes and he’s more aware of these changes as opposed to someone who has been coaching for many many years that might just stick to what they’ve been doing or what they were taught when they played,” said junior basketball player Eli Aldana.

Regardless of what a student participates in, the undeniable truth is that lifelong memories are made. This extends to sports, and a coach can have a big influence on a student athlete’s experience. While coaches can be tough sometimes, student athletes understand that the main goal of their coach is to help them grow as both a player and a person.

“I know that coach wants the best for me and he’ll do what it takes to make this experience the best it can be,” said Aldana.