There were all the delirious chills and goose bumps and screams and tears from a winning NCAA locker room you’d expect, memories embedded for a lifetime. … You had Kentucky winning the whole thing in your March Madness bracket? At a little school in Jersey City, it was thinking of other-case scenarios, these Peacocks of St. Peter’s, as they were about to face Kentucky. If we can do X Y and Z, we can be in it … then, who knows?
When it was over, Kentucky vanquished … still, who knows?
“Everybody was looking around at each other,” said St. Peter’s assistant coach Ryan Whelan. “Now what do we do?”
How about beat Murray State next, get to the Sweet 16 this week in Philadelphia? Every great NCAA Cinderella story has personal Cinderella stories embedded within. So, of course St. Peter’s has an assistant who got his start as a junior varsity player at St. Joseph’s, who credits his exact career path being “jump-started” by a bad case of mononucleosis.
“We probably had 15 to 20 guys on the [JV] team, whoever showed up – the only thing that would hamper us was the number of uniforms,” said Whelan, St. Joseph’s Class of 2008, of his freshman year on Hawk Hill. “Similar to me, high school players who didn’t want to let go. We would play literally anybody who would play us. It was so much fun.”
Mike Farrelly, now a Penn State assistant coach, was in charge, with Bob Hughes, now Rosemont’s coach, as his primary assistant.
“Great teachers, even better people,” Whelan said, remembering how there were no cuts made on that squad. “Mike kept everybody. He didn’t play everybody.”
Whelan said he himself played with an edge, but “if I was a 10, Mike was about a 15.” If Farrelly, former Hawks varsity reserve, didn’t like what he saw at practice, Whalen said, he’d grab any four players, take on the five starters, tell the starters they couldn’t beat him.
Whelan wasn’t local, went to Shore Regional High School in West Long Branch, N.J. But he knew St. Joe’s had a JV team, and as the son of a high school coach who had been an assistant under both Bob Hurley at St. Anthony’s and Kevin Boyle at St. Patrick’s, he had a million close degrees of separation from Hawk Hill.
“I only applied to one school,” Whelan said. “My sister went to Villanova. I knew I wanted to be close to her.”
Hawks fans, avert your eyes for the next couple of sentences. Why didn’t Whelan apply to Villanova? “I don’t think I was smart enough to get into Villanova,” Whelan said. “I knew I wanted to play basketball, but I knew I probably wasn’t good enough to be a Division I player. I knew they had that JV team.”
Best thing, he said, that ever happened to him.
“I met my wife there,” Whelan said.
We’ll get back to his crazy path, before it ended up with scouting Kentucky, then beating Kentucky.
“Our guys did a great job of coming back to earth,” Whalen said. “We got back to the hotel [in Indianapolis], it was like we had just played Fairfield. Then whoever else you play next, there’s nothing they’re going to throw at us we haven’t seen.”
All the craziness of the whole thing can be captured in a modern way. Whalen didn’t pick up his phone right away, then called right back, as he’d been on the phone with a St. Peter’s administrator.
“We’re dealing with NIL stuff for the first time,” he said.
Then there are the rumors surrounding the program, that Shaheen Holloway will be Seton Hall’s next head coach, now that Kevin Willard is officially off to Maryland. Whalen said players are on social media, they see everything, but it isn’t hard to stay focused on the right now when they all must understand, from Holloway to the last player, that the future may never match this.
“They do a really good job of living in the moment,” Whalen said of Peacocks players. “Sometimes to their detriment. Recently, it seemed to work out for us.”
Whalen himself … how can he know? Willard at Seton Hall had given Whalen some of the biggest opportunities of his young career. Can’t worry about the future. He had a Purdue scouting report to put together, which meant a phone call Sunday to his old JV coach, who happens to now be a Big Ten assistant coach.
“I was just on the phone with Mike two hours ago,” Whalen said.
After a bit, Farrelly told him, hey let’s cut this off … Purdue hadn’t beaten Texas yet. No reason to waste time on a game that might not happen. They resumed the conversation Monday.
Whalen played parts of two JV seasons, then that case of mono hit, end of his first semester of sophomore year. An enlarged spleen made playing impossible. Whalen kind of helped coach. At the end of the year, Farrelly talked to Phil Martelli about making Whalen a student assistant for the, you know, varsity.
“As the student assistant, I was like a manager for the coaches,” Whalen said.
This was back when Martelli had a closet for an office.
“I would literally sit on the floor in the corner,” Whalen said, remembering how then Hawks assistants Dave Duda and Doug Overton had a little video station set up; he would help with that. All his friends were out doing all the normal things, with Whalen tempted to join them, except he wanted to be a coach, he stayed put usually, even if it was on the floor.
“I always said I wanted to be my father — not be like my father, be my father,” Whalen said. “So coaching was the only option for me.”
A dad who worked for the two greatest Jersey high school legends of modern times, Hurley and Boyle?
“He always says he has a Harvard education in basketball,” Whalen said of his father, Joe. The circle really is unbroken here. Joe Whalen coached Shaheen Holloway in high school, plus had future St. Joe’s players Tyrone Barley and Dwayne Lee in AAU ball, and Ahmad Nivens when Joe was an assistant at St. Anthony’s.
All sorts of ties … “Dave Duda, I would not be where I am without him,” Whalen said of the current Delaware Valley University athletic director. Whalen remembers getting a video coordinator job at Towson. Great gig. Lucky to have it. Monotonous gig.
“You think you’re ready to coach college basketball,” Whalen said of Duda. “He was the one I would call.”
One of his favorite moments from Indianapolis was from a practice before the Kentucky game. Full circle, Martelli, now a Michigan assistant, walking over and giving Whalen a hug, telling him how proud he was of him.
“It’s hard not to get emotional,” Whalen said. “He did such a good job of making everyone feel important, maybe more important they really are.”
Whalen pulled it off, though. Didn’t get emotional over the phone. If you start thinking too much about the path, all the emotions would take over, and there’s Purdue tape to break down, another miracle to chase.
“Our guys did a great job of coming back down to earth,” Whalen said of the Cinderella darlings of the 2022 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, about to show up in the city where, his own big JV career cut short, a seat on the floor in a crowded office was the glorious start to it all.