Coach Mike is a Realist

By Jane Berlinger

The day I interviewed for the MCCC women’s basketball assistant coaching job was the day I met coach Mike.... Or so I thought. I had actually met him in 1999, when he tried desperately to recruit me to come and play for Mercer.

I saw his signature white hair at a lot of my games senior year. After every game he would come up and talk his talk and each time I said I was going away for college but thank you for seeing my potential. 

The day I walked in for my interview the lightbulb went off and I instantly recognized him. His first words to me were, “Looks like I finally recruited you.” He’s quick with his jokes. 
He followed that up with, “I’m sorry for the loss of your friend and teammate. I was told by Erin (Cahill Wetzel) not to mention it, but I wanted to extend my condolence. Can’t act like I don’t know when I do. I’m a realist.”  

“I’m a realist.” I heard that phrase out of coach Mike‘s mouth for the first time within 30 seconds of interviewing with him.  Little did I know “I’m a realist” would become his mantra. I bet if you ask anyone who has played for him over the years to name one phrase coach said nine out of 10 times they would say “I’m a realist.”

When I interviewed that day I had no idea we would be coaching so much more than the game of basketball.

Coach Mike knows his X’s and O’s. He has a vast knowledge of the game. He understands it, he predicts it, he studies it.  It always amazes me when a player challenges him and his decision making. I don’t think any of them realize how much work he does after the game is over, when the gym lights are off and they are home in bed. Coach Mike would go home and watch that game tape three or four times front to back before he went to bed.

He would have every player’s every move ingrained in his mind. He would realize where he went wrong and work out how to correct it. He would have the next day’s practice arranged to fix what hadn’t worked the night before. Always fixing, always tweaking, always learning. He was a student of the game and he was my teacher. I played basketball for 17 years but I learned the game of basketball from Coach Mike in these last nine years! 

When players come back to say hi, a resounding phrase is “I appreciate Coach Mike now that I’m older.”

Coaching isn’t just about the sport that’s played. It’s also about the lives we live off the court. It’s about the financial burden, the family life, the drama, the ups and downs, the breakups, the fights, injures, the bad decisions and the life choices made. 

Coach Mike‘s ability to support and advise his players during tough times has been so inspiring to watch. He could be in a meeting with a player who just had a bad game, mouthed off to him, gave him no respect and he would see that it had to do with much more than the game. He would put aside his frustration from the moment and get to the problem. Ask them what’s going on and then advise them in the most nonjudgmental way.

He did the same with players who failed out, made bad life choices or decided playing wasn’t for her any more. Every year a player who fits one of these descriptions would walk right through his door asking for a chance and coach would treat them with respect, let them explain, advise them and make sure they have all the resources they need. He never turned them away because they messed up. He understands that we don’t always make the right choices. Rather, it’s how we respond that matters. 

Some players may never know how much he truly cared for each one of his girls. They will never truly know how much he roots for them to succeed in life. 

Every now and then he gets an email from a former player thanking him for all that he did to help them on their journey. He would always share them with me. Not because he wanted the recognition but because he wanted me to see their success. He wanted everyone to know that this girl made it!

I’m going to miss coaching alongside Mike. I’m going to miss the practices, the long speeches, the advice not taken, the van rides, the wins, the losses, the yelling, the laughter, but most of all I’m going to miss my friend and mentor. The realist with the white hair who has a tough persona, but when it comes to his girls he’s a softy! 

Coach Mike, thank you for saving me at a time in my life when I was lost, angry and looking for a purpose. You gave me that the day you hired me. And it’s been the most exhausting and rewarding job I have ever had.

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Berlinger Tenaglia

 Berlinger with Coach Mike Tenaglia (Feb. 2020).

jane berlinger Sideline