37-year run over, Bill Rigali leaves lasting impact on Holyoke basketball

  • Bill Rigali roamed the Holyoke basketball sidelines for 37 years, leading the Purple Knights to four Western Massachusetts championships. His contract was not renewed by the school for this upcoming winter. COURTESY SANDY RIGALI

Staff Writer
Published: 11/29/2019 9:03:22 PM

Bill Rigali remembers sitting with his high school teammates in a dejected locker room in Rutland, Vermont, after a loss.

It was around Christmas time in the late 1960s and the Holyoke Purple Knights boys basketball team had just lost a close game. One of Rigali’s teammates missed two free throws late in the game that played a part in deciding the final score.

His teammate sat across from him on a bench in the locker room with his head in his hands, crying. Holyoke’s head coach at the time, John “Jinx” O’Connor, came into the locker room, approached the player, and reminded him of what’s most important: perspective.

A few years later, Rigali enrolled at Assumption College and played on the baseball team under coach Joe O’Brien.

O’Brien ingrained in his players that the most important thing they could do is to give back to their community.

“They were incredibly prepared and incredibly smart,” Rigali said about both coaches. “I wanted to do that.”

Rigali did that, and more, as the head boys basketball coach at Holyoke High School for 37 years. He was named the program’s coach in 1981 and led the team to five Western Massachusetts championships in his almost four decades at the helm. Rigali also coached the school’s tennis team for many years starting in the early 1980s in addition to teaching English at the high school.

When the winter season begins Monday, Rigali will not be on the Holyoke sidelines. The 2018-19 season was Rigali’s last coaching the Purple Knights boys basketball team, as his contract was not renewed by the school for this upcoming winter.

“Bill Rigali had an outstanding career as an educator and basketball coach at HHS,” Holyoke High School principal Stephen Mahoney said in an email to the Gazette. “He went above and beyond the traditional coaching responsibilities and helped countless student athletes with their academics, athletic goals and life lessons. Bill is a caring, compassionate person, who was concerned about all aspects of his athletes’ lives. His knowledge and expertise had an extraordinary impact on many of his student athletes’ lives. We hold Bill in the highest regard and have the utmost respect for him and what he has done for his students, athletes, Holyoke HS and the Holyoke Community during his career.”

Through his career, noticing the improvement of players and watching his teams reach their full potential always gave Rigali joy, but seeing his former players stay involved in the sports he coached, and sometimes become coaches themselves, continues to make him prideful.

“What you want to provide is a love for the game and hopefully that (players) will grow up and give back to the sport,” Rigali said. “It’s nice to see kids later on in life still have their tennis rackets in their hands and teaching their kids how to play, or they are teaching their kids how to play basketball. … I think if you approach things the right way as an educator and be respectful and positive to the kids you are coaching and your community, that develops naturally within the kids. That’s nice to see.”

Rigali won his first Western Mass. championship in 1993 when the Purple Knights defeated the four-time reigning champion Central Golden Eagles, 55-54.

Ramon Cosme was the Purple Knights’ point guard and won the Lahovich Award as the region’s best player that year. Cosme played under Rigali for four years and coached with him as an assistant from 1997 to 2017.

Cosme will always be grateful for how Rigali went the extra mile for his players.

“He used to take us to his house so we could study and he would help us if we were struggling,” Cosme said. “He’d feed us too and bring us back home. ... He’s a special person. They don't come that often. He taught me things that my parents couldn't teach me. My parents had a fifth grade education. Just being kind to people, humble. ... He understood where we came from. He understood our life, our living situation. That’s part of what made him a great coach.”

The trust that Rigali and his players had year after year made it easier for players to take constructive criticism from him, but it also meant that if he said a player could achieve or do something, he meant it.

“I didn't believe I was going to be a Lahovich winner. He put it in my head,” Cosme said. “For me it was about being challenged by him. He challenged us to make the right decisions in the classroom and on the court. That is what made him a great coach and us a great team.”

Rigali’s passion for coaching grew as a byproduct of his love for learning and teaching.

Northampton coach Rey Harp once met Rigali at center court and the coaches shook hands after a game between the Blue Devils and the Purple Knights early in Harp’s tenure.

Rigali didn’t ask Harp anything about how he runs his program or what he typically has his players do in practice.

“He started asking me about the books I’m reading and giving me book suggestions,” Harp said. “We’re talking history books and biographies. … I just thought ‘This is my hero’. ... He was wondering what sort of things make me go.”

When someone coaches a sport for as long as Rigali, there’s potential for the coach’s preferred playing style to get stale. Rigali made it a point to always pay attention to what other coaches and programs did and integrated new things into his program.

“In the time that I’ve been (at Northampton), his teams have made shifts three or four different times,” Harp said. “They never look like it’s something that’s dated. That doesn’t happen without spending a lot of time trying to really ask questions about yourself and what you’re doing. He’s a thoughtful coach. He responds on the fly.”

Rigali made it a point to learn from others, but through his almost four decades on the bench, other coaches watched how he worked and learned from him, too.

“He never put players down. He always tried to build them up,” former Amherst Regional coach Jim Matuszko said. “He pulled kids aside and talked to them like they are human beings. He wouldn’t scream and holler. I tried to emulate that.”

Juan Maldonado played for Rigali from 2002-2006. He coached the South Hadley boys basketball team for the last four seasons.

“His ability to stay calm, cool and collected. No matter the situation,” Maldonado said. “I try to do that now as a leader and as a coach.”

Maldonado’s senior year ended with a loss to Cathedral High School in the Western Massachusetts tournament. At the time, Maldonado was devastated.

Rigali noticed that Maldonado was hurting, so he pulled him aside and helped him put the moment into perspective.

“I remember he said to me that I am fortunate enough to go on and play college basketball when a lot of players don’t get that opportunity,” Maldonado said.

This winter, Maldonado will return to Holyoke High School and succeed Rigali as the program’s second head coach in the last 37 years.

The basketball court at Holyoke High School was named after Rigali in 2013. Succeeding him comes with some pressure, but Maldonado is looking forward to carrying himself in some of the same ways as the man that led the program before him did.

“I don’t think there is much pressure, because it’s not really about me,” Maldonado said. “It’s about the players.”

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