Mass. husband, wife thrive coaching college teamsBy MATT VAUTOUR , Associated Press
May. 19, 2013 2:36 AM ET
AMHERST, Mass. (AP) — As the final seconds of the first half ticked off during the Atlantic 10 tournament semifinal against George Washington last month, University of Massachusetts women's lacrosse coach Angela McMahon didn't like what she had seen.
Her top-seeded and heavily favored Minutewomen were ahead 5-4, but they were lacking energy and another flat half could mean an upset and months of work down the drain.
While McMahon has the most wins of any Division I women's lacrosse coach in her first three seasons at a school, her success has very little to do with her ability to make Ray Lewis-type speeches to fire up her squad.
McMahon's demeanor is calm and calculating, more chess player than cheerleader, but her team needed to be ignited. So McMahon wondered: "What would Justin do?"
In addition to being Amherst College's very successful men's soccer coach, Justin Serpone is McMahon's husband of almost four years. If McMahon has Bill Belichick's calm, Serpone exudes Pete Carroll's energy and the Minutewomen needed a dose of it.
"I'm usually very quiet, just trying to observe and take everything in," said McMahon, who is seven months pregnant with the couple's second child. "But based on how our team was playing, I was thinking 'I have to get how he is on the sideline. They need a spark, they need fire. They're not doing it themselves. I have to be that.'
"I definitely see that in him," she added. "That's how he gets his guys really jacked up to play. I really tried to get my energy going, constantly cheering, trying to get the sideline a lot more involved, which is something he does too. It really helped in the second half."
McMahon lost her voice, but the Minutewomen fed off her energy and outscored the Colonials 8-1 in the second half en route to a 13-5 victory.
Two days later UMass beat Duquesne 16-6 to secure a third straight Atlantic 10 title. The win put UMass in the NCAA tournament and gave the family on Bayberry Lane in Hadley its sixth conference title. If coaching ability is genetic, 18-month-old Lily Serpone and her soon-to-be born little brother could have quite the careers.
In six years leading the Jeffs, Serpone, 34, has never lost more than four games in a season or won fewer than 12 in compiling a 78-14-14 record. Not only has his team made the NCAA Division III tournament every year, it has advanced to at least the second round each season.
If McMahon, 31, keeps winning Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year honors, the league might have to name the award after her. In three years at UMass, she is 53-7 and has won every A-10 coach of the year trophy as well as every conference regular and postseason game.
Between UMass and Amherst they boast a record of 131-21-14.
Serpone and McMahon grew up less than 20 miles apart in the Boston suburbs of Winchester and Weston, respectively, but they met almost 1,000 miles away in Chicago.
McMahon started her playing career at UMass but transferred to Northwestern to be part of the Wildcats' fledgling program. She was a two-time tri-captain and led the program to its first NCAA tournament as a senior in 2004. She returned to campus in 2005 to support coach Kelly Amonte and her former team in an NCAA tournament game against Princeton.
Serpone, meanwhile, was in his third year as an assistant coach at Northwestern, where the men's soccer and women's lacrosse offices are next door to each other in Patten Gymnasium. The proximity helped foster a closeness between the two staffs. After Northwestern beat Princeton, McMahon and the men's soccer staff were invited to a victory dinner at Wolfgang Puck's.
It was the first time Serpone and McMahon met, but a conversation started about their shared love of Boston sports teams and it took off from there.
Serpone had accepted an assistant coaching job at Duke for the upcoming fall season, but he eventually wanted to get back to New England, a hope increased by his new feelings for McMahon, who was hired at Bentley University in Waltham.
"He asked for my contact info, so I could tell him if I ever heard of any soccer openings, whether it was at Bentley or anywhere else nearby," McMahon said.
Serpone's request was genuine, but he admitted he would have found some way to exchange numbers no matter where she was coaching. They stayed in touch and began dating long distance, making good use of free night and weekend cellphone minutes, visiting when they could.
"I'm a big Dunkin' Donuts coffee drinker and there were no Dunkin' Donuts in North Carolina when I was at Duke. She would buy me a coffee in the airport ..." Serpone began, smiling at the memory.
"I put it in three cups ..." McMahon interjected.
"To keep it warm," Serpone continued. "That was very sweet."
He got much closer to his favorite coffee and more importantly McMahon in 2007. McMahon was hired as an assistant at UMass and shortly after Serpone was named head coach at Amherst College.
After two years helping then-head coach Alexis Venachanos turn the Minutewomen into an emerging power in the Northeast, McMahon was hired as head coach at Connecticut, which went 1-16 the previous season.
The Huskies finished 3-13 in her first year in 2009, then jumped to 9-8 in 2010 as McMahon laid the foundation for UConn.
When Venachanos left for Ohio State, McMahon replaced her at UMass.
In between her two seasons at UConn, McMahon and Serpone got married. Just finding jobs close enough to live together can be a challenge for married coaches who are still climbing the career ladder. So McMahon and Serpone felt lucky when she was at Storrs, Conn., and he was at Amherst. With cooperating traffic, both could get to work from their Longmeadow home within 45 minutes.
When McMahon was hired at UMass, they felt like they'd hit the lottery with home fields less than two miles apart.
"What a special thing to happen in our life to be in the same spot," Serpone said. "We joke all the time that if it's raining we don't want to go outside. We might get struck by lightning just because everything has lined up. We're so grateful and blessed to have the opportunities that we've had."
The newfound proximity made it much easier to start a family. Lily was born Nov. 11, 2011, the night before an Amherst first-round NCAA tournament game at home. When McMahon's water broke very early that morning, Serpone did what any about-to-be-first-time dad would do — he ran to the basement and recorded a quick video scouting report on Husson University before heading to Cooley Dickinson Hospital.
At the hospital, Serpone loaded the video on a jump drive and had an assistant come to retrieve it.
"My guys thought I was crazy," Serpone said.
Giving birth "is so many hours that you kind of just sit there with nothing to do," she said. "So we're able to still get some things done."
Lily was born at 10:30 p.m. and Serpone did not sleep until about 4 a.m. Eight hours later he coached his team to a 4-0 win.
It's become cliche for coaches at every level of college sports to call their programs "a family." While becoming parents sometimes creates firmer lines between professional and personal lives, for McMahon and Serpone it further intertwined them.
"It's made me a lot more ... I wouldn't use the word relaxed, but I think I've gotten a little perspective of what's important. When you don't have kids, (your) focus is all on winning. Since having a child, I think I have better relationships with some of my players," McMahon said. "I think I let my guard down a little bit more. Being a mom and knowing what their moms see and go through for them, I think I've become a little bit more soft than I used to be.
"The competitiveness is still there," she added, "but bringing Lily to practice and having her at games and the excitement my players get being around her has opened their eyes a little bit to our personal lives. We usually had that a little bit divided, but there's no boundaries anymore."
Serpone said parenthood has enhanced their coaching more than changed it.
"This is our life. We're passionate about what we do. We want Lily to be part of that, not something that's separate from our experiences. This is who we are," he said. "That's been fun for me. This isn't changing who we are. We're still competitive as heck. We're going to keep winning games. We could have eight kids and that's still going to be a priority. There's not a separation. But what a pleasure it is for us to see our players playing ball with her in the backyard. It's really rewarding."
The spouses are still competitive with each other. Ping-Pong matches are pretty even. McMahon brags that she "kicked his ass" playing tennis on their Jamaican honeymoon, but concedes that Serpone, a voracious reader who helped start a book club in the Amherst athletic department, dominates when they keep score watching Jeopardy.
"There are occasional times when they'll give me a good category where I'll know every single answer," she said. "But overall he has more useless knowledge than I do."
They revel in each other's coaching successes and because of that the Amherst men's soccer and UMass women's lacrosse programs have become close. During the regular season, the Jeffs made a dinner for the Minutewomen. In the fall, the women's team will reciprocate. Many of the players are Facebook friends and when schedules allow they attend each other's games.
Because Division III schools do not practice in the offseason, Serpone has more time to be involved with UMass lacrosse. During home games, he's the color analyst on UMassathletics.com's internet broadcasts. It gives him a chance to channel his nervous energy during games and her an opportunity to bust his chops for his commentary when she hears it afterward.
McMahon will occasionally even use Serpone to deliver a pregame speech to her team.
"Sometimes the girls need to hear that rah-rah voice. I think they also respond differently hearing a male voice," McMahon said. "We try to use each other's strengths."
Because of their success, either coach could be an attractive candidate for a bigger school with a vacancy. But their ability to be successful while working across town means both coaches could spend the remainder of their respective careers in Amherst.
"It's the perfect situation for him in terms of what's important to him and where he wants to be. And it's the perfect situation for me in terms of what I think is important to have in a school and an athletic department," McMahon said. "It's amazing that those two situations are where they are and we're so happy and they're a mile and a half apart."