By Connor Beach
Back in 1999, the Walt Whitman Wildcats boys basketball team was in a tough situation: they trailed by 15 points with five minutes left to play, and on top of that were being led by a first-time varsity coach in his debut.
The coach, Thomas Fitzpatrick, called a timeout.
“Guys,” he told the Wildcats, “if we get this under 10, we’re going to win this game.”
The athletes believed him, battled back and ended up winning the game.
The game would serve as a basis for Fitzpatrick’s career to come, throughout which he would amass a 235-142 record, 25 playoff victories, seven league titles, seven final four appearance, two Long Island championships and six sportsmanship awards.
He also adopted a mentality from that first, big win: “It’s never over ‘til it’s over.”
That mindset was on full display Friday, in the coach’s last game before retirement, when Fitzpatrick led the Wildcats to a last-minute, come-from-behind victory over Bay Shore.
“We pulled out some games that we shouldn’t have,” Fitzpatrick said, looking back at his career.
Affectionately known as “Coach Fitz,” the 52-year-old Fitzpatrick has been involved with Whitman’s basketball program for the past 25 years. He started as a scout, spent five years as a junior varsity coach and then closed out the career with 19 at the helm of the varsity squad.
His ties to the Huntington area date back further. Fitzpatrick grew up in Northport and played on the Northport High School basketball team with current coach of the Brooklyn Nets, Kenny Atkinson.
Fitzpatrick got his coaching start while pursuing a degree in physical education from SUNY Brockport. As a student teacher at Smithtown West High School, Fitzpatrick coached freshman soccer, basketball and lacrosse.
Even though he had never picked up a lacrosse stick in his life, Fitzpatrick said, he met his coaching mentor Ralph Pepe on the lacrosse field at the school.
“He really taught me a lot about how to deal with kids, how to be positive. We had a lot of fun coaching together,” Fitzpatrick said.
It was another friendship that got Fitzpatrick’s foot in the door at Walt Whitman High School. John Hogan, coach of the Wildcats varsity soccer team through the ’80s and ’90s, brought on Fitzpatrick as the high school’s freshman soccer coach.
A physical education job at Stimson Middle School also opened up around the same time, and Fitzpatrick earned it; he’s taught at Stimson for the past 25 years.
He eventually worked his way to the Wildcats varsity basketball team. While he’s proud of all his career’s milestones, Fitzpatrick said the six sportsmanship awards his teams have earned are among his favorite.
“I felt that we did it the right way – the way the kids played, the way we coached and the way we represented the school and the community,” Fitzpatrick said. “We tried to play as many kids as we could.”
Fitzpatrick said his success would not have been possible without the help of his coaching staff. He praised the efforts of Curt Russell, who prepared the players for varsity in his 19 years as coach of the junior varsity team; 11-year varsity assistant Rich Mills; and 6-year assistant Ray Eatmon.
Most importantly, Fitzpatrick said, he relied on the support of his wife Barbara and their two children.
“My wife has been coming to the games for the last 15 years, and my kids have been coming since they were 3,” Fitzpatrick said. “That’s very important – to make sure that you have good people around you.”
Former players, alumni, students, family and friends came out to Fitzpatrick’s last home game on Feb. 6 to celebrate his illustrious career.
“A lot of my former players were there” he said. “It was just really cool.”
Fitzpatrick said he will continue his work in the district, with the intention to teach at Stimson for at least another six years.