Mike Messere loved wrestling and playing lacrosse at Cortland State University (N.Y.) before graduating in 1966 and launching his coaching career.
The three-sport star at West Genesee (Camillus, N.Y.)
High School returned to his alma mater and began coaching at the middle school level.
He told Maxpreps, "I thought at first that wrestling would be my bag. My first opportunity came in lacrosse. The lacrosse coach went into administration and they needed (a coach) in the building."
Call it fate, or whatever you want, but in the spring of 1976 Messere began what has turned out to be the greatest lacrosse coaching career in history, because he has won more games than any other high school coach — or college coach — in history with a phenomenal 757-55 record in 37 years. He has won an incredible 93 percent of his games and a national-record 15 state championships to go along with six runner-up finishes.
The previous national record had been 746 victories by Hall of Fame coach Joe Cuozzo of Ward Melville (East Setauket, N.Y.). Messere split six meetings with Cuozzo, winning three of five in state championship games.
From 1981-84 his teams tied the national record with a 91-game winning streak. The record is shared with Sewanhaka (Floral Park, N.Y.)
, which was coached by Hall of Famer Bill Ritch. The streak ended with a heartbreaking 6-5 loss to Yorktown (Yorktown Heights) in the 1984 state championship game.
Neil Kerr, who wrote for the Syracuse Post-Standard for 44 years, recalled that a controversial ruling cost the Wildcats a goal and Yorktown then scored to win the game.
"You'd think they would have been crushed, but they stood at midfield, staying in a military line with their sticks held high," he marveled. "I'd never seen this poise. They had too much class to throw things or scream and yell. He (Messere) is the best high school coach I ever worked with. He doesn't take any guff from anybody. You walk the line or you're gone."
Messere said, "Of course, they wanted to run off and cry. I told them, 'You stay there and honor the other team.' (Discipline) is part of it. That's why we've become so successful. We teach them to be self-disciplined."
After that loss, the Wildcats ran off another 44-game streak, giving them a remarkable 135 victories in 136 outings.
However, the most incredible number in the 69-year-old Messere's career is eight. He has coached only eight players who have not gone on to play lacrosse in college. And there are more than 100 of his former players who have gone into coaching at some level.
"We spend a lot of time trying to match up their athletic ability and academics," he said. "Our goal every year is to get kids into college. A lot of our kids go to Syracuse. Seven of the starters on their first NCAA champion in 1983 were our kids."
Syracuse has won 11 national championships — five by current coach John Desko — who, not coincidentally, is a West Genesee graduate, as is assistant coach Kevin Donahue.
Desko, a 1975 graduate who played only for Messere on the freshman team, noted, "He taught me lacrosse. He's best described as a teacher. He's very big on fundamentals and discipline. The way he teaches the game, he's not going to lose a lot. Some of the things we do at Syracuse, I learned from Mike."
The Syracuse coach saw Messere's discipline up close one day when a player reported late for practice. Rumor had it that he had gone hunting. Messere calmly told the boy to bring in the bird that he had shot and the next day the bird's wings were wrapped around his helmet for the entire practice.
Desko's son, Tim, also played for Messere and now is coaching in the Atlanta area.
Messere's phenomenal success has not gone unnoticed. He made the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1994 and this summer will be inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame.
Concerning his many awards, Messere said humbly, "It's a great honor for our program and kids who have worked so hard to get us there — the school, the community, too."
Messere is proud that three of his former players are in the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame: Bradley Kotz, who was MVP for Syracuse's 1983 national championship team; Mike Buzzell, who was a Top Gun Navy fighter pilot and has flown for FedEx for 25 years, and Todd Curry.
Buzzell was a senior when Messere took over as head coach.
Buzzell recalled, "He was just starting out, but it was a great experience. He was very technical and fundamental. Mike is unique in that he really, really digs into the details. He's extremely disciplined and really requires that from his players. I think he would be ranked in the top one percent as far as being disciplined and expecting the most from his players.
"He gets kids to show up at 5 in the morning for practice. They practice a lot on their own. It's definitely an art and a skill in this day and age. Winning came from buying into the program. You were going to win if you accepted the process. He's a top-notch teacher of leadership. That type of approach carried with me through college and in the Navy. We all come back to support Mike. I think the world of the guy.
"Some college coaches say, 'He's a West Genny kid. He knows more than I do.' They definitely know a lot more about lacrosse when they come out of West Genny."
Buzzell still vividly recalls a game in which the Wildcats did not play up to their coach's expectations.
"On the way home, he stopped the bus and we had to run the (Westcott) Reservoir," Buzzell said. "It's not like a mountain, but you have to run to the top and it's dark. That opened our eyes and was kind of the turning point in the season."
That team finished with a 19-1 record and Messere has never had a loser.
In later years, Buzzell heard about another bus stop at the reservoir following a poor effort by the team.
"He ragged on them for a few minutes and then said, 'Get back on the bus. You're not good enough to run the reservoir.' It was almost a dagger in the heart."
Messere is quick to point out that he has never had a team run the reservoir after a loss.
In fact, things often are different now, the veteran coach revealed.
"If we win the state championship, on the way back — at 2 or 3 a.m. — we stop and run the reservoir (as a reward). Kids will meet us there at the hill. Coaches and ex-players, everybody runs to the top. Once we ran it when it was 96 degrees. Ran it six times."
This family atmosphere at West Genesee also runs through Bob Deegan, who once wanted to be a head coach but after buying into Messere's philosophy has been his trusted assistant since 1983.
"It's his show," Deegan says. "I basically do goalies and defense. We can have conversations without saying much. I don't have to ask — I know the reason. This guy to this day still works. He is quote, unquote retired (as a teacher in 1999), but he loves this. It means as much to him as ever. He's adjusted to having a different type of kid. He still is hammering at it. You check your ego at the door."
Deegan added to Messere's legend as a disciplinarian with a story about one of the team's best players.
He recalled, "He was a real good, tough kid, but he had this thing about school, kind of giving us lip service. Mike took a small school desk and put it in the corner of the field. In full uniform he had to do his homework. He had to show it to us and have each teacher initial it. He finally got the message and (later made All--America) and was Cum Laude in college."
A still unmentioned — yet highly important aspect — of Messere's success is the youth program he started at Shove Park during his middle school coaching career. Players from first through tenth grade are considered the feeder program, with juniors and seniors considered the high school team. Only five freshmen ever have played varsity for him and three of them are on this year's squad.
Neil Kerr likes to say, "Everybody knows that third graders at Shove Park are darn good."
The ultra-successful coach admits that the numbers have dwindled somewhat during his career. He used to have to drop 10 or 15 players each year, but no longer has to cut to field a team of 30 or 35 players.
Messere and his wife of 44 years, Barbara, live on a 40-acre farm where they raise horses and two dogs, along with planting hay and a vegetable garden each year.
Barbara revealed that her husband considered retiring 10 years ago when she had a heart attack, but she is fine today.
"We don't want to be sitting on the beach doing nothing. He can coach as long as he wants," she said.
The living legend was unable to choose a No. 1 thrill, but he did more or less sum up his career when he said, "I've been so fortunate. It's what happens to these kids now with their families. Todd Curry — the first thing he checked to see if his socks were pulled up tight (before he made his Hall of Fame acceptance speech). They had to be clean, white and stay up. A single word or phrase (from a coach) can change a life forever."