A Good Man Gone: Remembering Mike Whittles
Cancer takes Whittles, a coach who realized there was more to life than just W-L record
By Keith Mills
On a cool April night four years ago, Mike Whittles shared with me a perspective change.
It was a conversation that came pouring back to me when I heard Whittles had lost his long and agonizing battle with pancreatic cancer June 7.
I met Whittles almost 10 years ago, when he was coaching football for the Green Hornets youth program in Severna Park.
During the summer of 1999, athletic director Lee Dove hired him to coach the football program at Archbishop Spalding in Severn. The signing not only signaled a change in the lives of Whittles and his wife, Diane, but also significantly changed the lives of hundreds of young men he ultimately coached at the small school on New Cut Road in Severn.
During the spring of 2008, Whittles' oldest son, Mike Jr.; his youngest son, Nick; and my daughter, Ally, were classmates at Spalding.
By then, every time we saw each other, which was often during my daughter's four years at the school, we always talked family first and football second.
It was no different the night of April 29, 2008. We stood near the corner of the football end zone as we watched the Spalding lacrosse team play Gilman in an important MIAA A Conference game. He asked about my family and I did the same before the conversation turned to coaching.
I had recently joined the coaching staff at Cardinal Gibbons, where my son Nick played soccer, and I had just started to assist Lee Schwarzenberg with the Crusaders baseball team.
We talked about the ever-changing culture of high school sports; the need for offseason conditioning programs; the pressure the players faced from outside influences, and the sometimes-brutal pressure parents were placing on high school coaches not just to win, but to make sure their children received a college scholarship or other accolades.
Whittles, who graduated from Good Counsel High School in 1971, had seen the change firsthand. He was living it every day since he took over the dormant Spalding football program in 1999 and turned it into a perennial MIAA B Conference powerhouse.
The Cavaliers didn't win a single game the first year Whittles coached at Spalding, and won just 10 during his first four years. But slowly, the gap closed between Spalding and the rest of the B Conference. The Cavaliers beat Boys' Latin in 2005 for their first championship.
One year later, they beat Cardinal Gibbons at Johnny Unitas Stadium for their second straight conference championship, and finished their season a perfect 11-0. Three years later, in 2009, they won the title again, and then again in 2010.
The Cavaliers had arrived, though Whittles was admittedly changing, not in his coaching style, or his commitment to the school, or his devotion to his players and assistant coaches, but what was really important about high school sports -- the relationships between coach and players.
In November 2008, Whittles said he'd realized coaching wasn't always about winning and losing, about conference championships and overall records. It's about the lives of the young men and women he was touching at Spalding.
"When I first took over," Whittles said that night, "it was all about winning. It drove me. In fact, it almost drove me crazy. ... When we won that first championship, and a lot of kids from the previous teams came back to watch that game, I realized it was a lot bigger than just winning. It was about the kids. That's why we're here. Those kids that came back didn't win a lot of games here. But they came back because Spalding and the football program were important to them."
So was Whittles, who didn't make a lot of friends when his football team went from being the perennial conference doormat to a dominant conference champion.
When the Cavaliers started winning, they started the rocking the boat in the tradition-oriented B Conference, which included Boys' Latin, St. Paul's, Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop Curley and Anne Arundel County rival St. Mary's of Annapolis.
Whittles was not only a good football coach, but he was brash and confident. He instilled in his players the same confidence and swagger.
He never lost the confidence or swagger, but he gained an entire new level of perspective as his coaching career continued and the Spalding trophy case got more crowded.
Those golden moments with his players became much more important than the wins and losses -- the meetings, tape sessions, bus rides, pep rallies, pregame meals and one often-overlooked but vital aspect of any coach-player relationship.
"I love practice," Whittles said. "That's where you really connect with the kids. You push 'em hard. You challenge 'em. After practice, they would come into the office and talk, and not just about football. They talk about school, girlfriends. You name it, they talk about it. That's what's important."
Whittles was officially diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February 2011, although he began showing symptoms in November 2010, right before Spalding won its fourth conference championship.
At a Spalding basketball game in January 2011, he shared with me a fear that eventually became reality just a few weeks later. He had Stage IV pancreatic cancer.
By then, the perspective change of 2008 was a full-blown philosophical agenda.
He was named to the executive committee of the Touchdown Club of Baltimore and became close with many of his coaching rivals. During his 18-month battle with the disease, he stood strong and stoic, upbeat and jovial in the teeth of some wicked pain and adversity, savoring his time with his family, friends and players instead of wallowing in self-pity.
The wins and losses, so crucial when he started his 12-year tenure at Spalding, were still important, though the relationships he had built with his former players, and the ones he was nurturing with his current ones, were driving him every day.
He not only welcomed former players back to practice, he cherished his time with them, while his current players savored the chance to play for a coach and program that was respected locally and regionally.
During the fall of 2011, Spalding played its first game in the MIAA A Conference, and in what would be Whittles' last year as coach, the Cavaliers finished 7-4. They lost during the first round of the A Conference playoffs to Gilman, who honored Whittles and the Cavaliers program during their regular season game in October.
My daughter Ally was good friends with many of the Spalding players during their conference championship run of 2005 and '06 -- Brandon Matter, Ryan Moran, Jimmy Thomas, Patrick Mangum Jr. and Jake Trantin. Mangum just graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy. Trantin, a three-year starter at William & Mary, was signed by the Cincinnati Bengals and has been taking part in their offseason mini-camps.
Those kids swore by Whittles. They played hard for him, respected him, loved him. When they learned of his death, they gathered as a team one more time to relive that unique and special time in their lives. The wins and losses for these young men, just like their coach, have been replaced by the friendships and sacrifices they made for one another.
Brian Propst, Brian Baublitz, Larry Ingram, Gill Davis, Les Wicklein, strength coach Rob McBride and junior varsity coach Bernie Blubaugh formed Whittles' last coaching staff.
Whittles' sons, Nick and Mike Jr., both played for their dad. So did D.J. and K'Vaunte Smith; Terrell, Malik and Jeremiah Johnson; Brian Louck, Spalding's quarterback last year; Shayne Sullivan; Ryan Cochran; Alex Barclay; Matt Wicklein; and hundreds of others. Some made All-Metro, All-Anne Arundel County and All-MIAA teams. Some did not. Some did not play at all.
For the record, Whittles won 85 games and lost 53 during his 13 years at Spalding. For the record, he and Diane are the proud grandparents of Mike Goedecke, the son of Chris and their daughter, Jessica.
For the record, he was one of those many high school coaches that loved to win, but loved his players much more.
Issue 174: June 2012