Nobody would have blamed Don Silveri for settling into retirement. He will celebrate his 67th birthday in three weeks. His buddies had tee times waiting for him in Florida. He has three grandchildren. A steady stream of Saturdays seemed a fitting reward for a lifetime in basketball.
So the question begged, after Villa Maria College hired him in February to coach men’s basketball and resurrect its athletic program: Why, at this stage of his life, with the toll paid to Easy Street, would Silveri bother with the hassle that comes with starting a Division III program?
The private liberal arts school has fewer than 500 students. Villa hasn’t had sports since the Clinton Administration, when it was a two-year school barely on the radar.
“I wasn’t ready to get out,” Silveri said Tuesday. “I realized that after being off for six months. I thought I was the perfect one for this job.”
In fact, he kept going because he wasn’t sure how to stop. Basketball had been in his blood since he can remember. His friends told him he wasn’t the same after his unceremonious departure from Daemen College. He was missing the twinkle in his eye that came every year with basketball season.
Silveri coached at Daemen for a quarter century. He doubled as athletic director for 12 years and helped the program ascend to Division II. Neither side would discuss why they abruptly parted ways. Silveri could have walked away from college sports with 584 victories, but he was determined to leave on his own terms.
Villa gave him his first collegiate coaching job some 30 years ago, and he wanted to help the school regain its footing in sports. He gave them an experienced administrator who knew the potholes that came with starting a program. In exchange, they have given him a purpose and made him feel like a kid again.
Hassle? It wasn’t a hassle. It was a blessing.
“I’m the most immature 67-year-old guy I know,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know. We’ll see where it goes. All these years of coaching and working with kids have kept me young. It’s the prior relationships that I had here. It was a big part of it.”
The plan calls for Villa to start with men’s and women’s basketball and soccer before progressing to the 10 sports required for Division III sustainability. The school eventually wants to add bowling, golf, tennis, volleyball, lacrosse and rugby. First, it must emerge from the beginner stage.
Silveri is trying to assemble a men’s basketball team, which is a chore for a startup program at a little-known school. He had verbal commitments from a few players and is waiting for more. He’ll put together a team in the coming months when the recruiting process shakes out.
Men’s and women’s basketball is expected to open in 2015-16. Soccer may need to wait a year because it had such a late start. He was considering keeping soccer at the club level for a year, which would give his coaches more time to get their programs in order. Together, they’re navigating the road ahead.
Villa Maria gives local athletes who are looking to extend their high school careers yet another option at the college level. Villa understands its limitations for now, but it also has the vision to see its potential. The key is building a foundation and expanding the project from the bottom.
Silveri hired former Williamsville South boys basketball coach Al Monaco, for years one of the best in the region, to take over Villa’s women’s team. It gives the school two good coaches in its most visible sport. If they can succeed in the early years, it will accelerate the program’s overall growth.
Mike Ertel, a former assistant coach with FC Buffalo who has connections across the region, was hired to coach the men’s soccer team. Amanda Janosky, a former Canisius star who played for the Rochester Rhinos and has since become a triathlete, signed up to coach the women’s soccer team.
The school has been selling the idea that it’s “back in the game,” but the same could be said about the head of its athletic department. This weekend, Silveri is headed for Indianapolis to continue his 30-year run of attending the national coaches’ convention that coincides with the Final Four.
A few months ago, when Silveri had all the time in the world, it threatened to come to an end. These days, it feels like a fresh start. He’s so busy that he can barely catch his breath. Retirement can wait.
“I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘You’ve got that gleam back in your eye,’ ” Silveri said. “They can see it in my everyday personality. They can tell that I’m happy again. And I am.”