By Mick Mattaliano
This is an article no one wants to write and is more painful for its audience to read. This weekend, the VCU athletic community lost one of its leaders in Coach Paul Keyes. Many of us who had an opportunity to play for him, lost much more. It is hard to describe the influence Coach had on all our lives, and rather than speak for others, I’d rather just tell what impact he had on my life. I am certain it’s a story that many former players, coaches and anyone who had the chance to spend time with Coach Keyes would echo.
When I arrived as a freshman walk-on in 2004, Coach hardly took notice of me. While being young, I assumed it was because he didn’t like me. That was never the case with coach and freshmen; you had to earn his respect. As I wallowed on the bench for a year, I wondered if I had what it took to be a Division I baseball player, but more importantly, how was I going to make Coach take notice of me and think of me as a contributor.
My sophomore year, after resisting the temptation to transfer, I was determined to prove to Coach Keyes that I could be someone he could rely upon. Sure enough, halfway through the season I worked my way into being the No. 1 option out of the bullpen. After one dismal weekend performance at UNC Wilmington, Coach Keyes went on one of his epic rants, ripping the team. Every player knows these meetings well, because Coach would do it once a year, where he would basically go down the entire roster and find fault with something you were or were not doing.
Personally, I was terrified of this particular rant because he even ripped Harold Mozingo, who was one of Coach’s all-time favorites. I’m scared to death of what he is going to say about me. But I remember when he finally got to me he said “our best player right now is a bleeping walk-on. Mick you are the least talented player to ever play for VCU, but I wish I had more players like you.” In typical Coach Keyes fashion, he gave me a compliment while still not giving me too much credit. But it was the turning point in my career because I finally felt like I earned his respect, and it motivated me to keep striving to become a better player. Flash forward eight years, and I can honestly say that outside of my parents and family, Coach Keyes was the biggest influence in making me the person who I am today.
To say that Coach Keyes was stubborn, complex and unconventional would not be off track. His coaching style was not for everyone. He would motivate his players however he could to get the maximum out of everyone. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it rubbed people the wrong way. What gets lost in the shuffle is that he never did it to be mean spirited or because he didn’t like certain players. He did it to prepare all his players to become men. Everyone was not going to play professional baseball, and while he certainly gave many young men, including myself, the opportunity to realize that dream, he made sure that everyone who made it through his program was ready to deal with the ups and downs of the real world. Simply put, he transformed the lives of hundreds of 18-22 year old men.
Coach Keyes lived and breathed VCU Baseball. As a coach, he took tremendous pride in building the program into one of the finest on the East Coast. He was always hard on his assistant coaches but would speak highly of all of them, from Queenie, Nugget, Hayne-Dog, Stiff, Finwood and his mentor Guzz.
The reverence he showed when speaking of all of them was a side of him that I wish he showed more often. Even though he could be critical of his players, he was fiercely loyal to all of them. In the past, VCU ball players did not have the cleanest reputation, to put it kindly, yet Coach handled everyone’s personality and behavior in the best ways he could. He knew exactly when to give his players space, and he definitely knew how and when to push his players’ buttons. VCU Baseball had the reputation of hard-nosed players that would grind games out and find ways to beat you. It was never pretty, but it was highly effective. Coach took tremendous pride in that reputation, and it was a message he imparted on all his teams.
The one thing he valued even more than his program was his family. He would always bring around Paul Anthony, McKenzie and Kyle to the Diamond and let them run around and fraternize with the players. You could just tell in his voice when he spoke of his children how happy he was being a father. Trish was his rock. She dealt with the demands of being a coach’s wife always with support and love. I remember a conversation we had after he got sick when Coach told me how great Trish has been and how she has been incredible throughout this entire ordeal. I hope he told her that and made her aware of how much he loved her, as it was so evident that day.
The upcoming week will be no doubt one of the hardest of my life and for countless others of the VCU community. We lost a great man, coach, father and for me a friend. You will never be forgotten Coach, and no matter how long time passes, your legacy will live on in all the people you have touched over the years. We love you and will greatly miss you. Rest in Peace.
Mick Mattaliano is a a former walk-on who pitched for VCU from 2004-07. Mattaliano was a member of two CAA Championship teams and was named to the CAA All-Tournament Team in 2007. After an outstanding pitching career with the Rams, he played four years of professional baseball, primarily with the Baltimore Orioles organization.