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Quinnipiac’s ‘Mecca’ of athletics
Thursday night at the TD Bank Sports Center in Hamden is game night for the Quinnipiac Bobcats men’s basketball team. The scoreboard reads 15:36 remaining in the first half, and the buzzer sounds at the scorer’s table, signifying a media timeout. ‘The Cupid Shuffle’ is blaring over the public address sound system. That’s Billy Mecca’s cue.
In a performance worthy of a “Dancing with the Stars” nomination, the 55-year-old Billy Mecca rises from his seat on press row and executes the dance step for step. Meanwhile, in the student section, a group of fans who have named themselves “Mecca’s Maniacs” rise as one to give Mecca a standing ovation.
It’s all in a day’s work for Mecca, who, when he’s not moonlighting as Fred Astaire, serves as WQUN’s color commentator for QU’s men’s and women’s basketball teams. On a more routine basis, he is also Quinnipiac’s senior associate director of athletics, and is directly involved with many athletes, not just basketball players.
“He knows all of us by name,” said junior Andrew Rinaldi, a pitcher on Quinnipiac’s baseball team. “You can really tell how much he loves the athletics here at Quinnipiac. He’s always walking around the rec center or he’s at our games. And he’s a pretty cool dude, too.”
So how did the Bowie, Md., native go from a four-year basketball career at Niagara University to where he is now at Quinnipiac?
“I go to Niagara University, and I have no idea what I want to do when I get out of school,” Mecca said. “Danny Raskin, who was the assistant [basketball coach], becomes the head coach my junior and senior year. And Danny Raskin had worked at Quinnipiac in the ‘60s.”
When Mecca graduated in 1978, a spot opened up on the Quinnipiac coaching staff, and Raskin pointed Mecca toward Hamden. But as he would soon discover, his new job would entail much more than just a spot on the bench helping with the Xs and Os.
“Burt Kahn, who was the A.D. and the basketball coach here, was looking to bring someone in. So, at a tender age of 21, I came to Quinnipiac,” Mecca said. “And in year one, I was Sports Information Director, Assistant basketball coach, Head JV Basketball Coach, tennis coach, Supervisor of Work Study, Assistant Instructor of Physical Education, and golf coach.”
With a contract totaling $6,733 (“I was livin’ large,” he says), Billy Mecca set out to start his new life at Quinnipiac College. In a word, Mecca said working as an assistant for Kahn was “intense.”
“He was probably one of the toughest individuals you could ever be around, he was the most competitive person I’ve ever been around,” Mecca said. “And in terms of learning a job, it wasn’t just about basketball.”
While serving as one of Kahn’s assistant coaches from 1978-1991, Mecca learned lessons that, as he said, were more than just about hoops.
“The one thing he always taught me that makes the most sense to me was: When you have a job to do, when you have a task to do, make sure you look back before you think it’s over and say, ‘Could I have done anything better, or did I leave it perfect?’” Mecca said. “And from age 23, 24, 25, that message has never left me.”
“They were tough years,” Mecca said. “Coach was a brilliant basketball guy, but there were times where winning the game wasn’t important to him. Burt would do some things in terms of, ‘I’m not going to play zone even though you can’t shoot; I want to beat you with the best stuff.’ So, I learned an incredible lot, but there were days I would tell you it was incredibly frustrating for me.”
Then, in 1991, 13 years after he first walked in the door at Quinnipiac, Mecca got his big break. Kahn stepped down, albeit reluctantly, from his head coaching position. Quinnipiac President John Lahey felt a change was needed, and asked Kahn to focus solely on his duties as Athletic Director, appointing Mecca as Kahn’s replacement. It was hard enough for Mecca to replace Kahn, who at the time was synonymous with Quinnipiac athletics, but the fact that Kahn was still in such close proximity to the program made it that much more difficult.
“There was always pressure filling his shoes because he made it known every day that I was filling his shoes,” Mecca said. “Burt, I think at some point, was envious of the fact that I was doing something that he still wanted to do.”
In addition to his head coaching duties, Mecca was now also the Associate Athletic Director. Add that to the looming presence of Kahn watching his every move, and it wasn’t the greatest environment to coach a basketball team.
“I never really got to spend 40 hours a week on basketball,” Mecca said.
Mecca took the reins of the Bobcats men’s basketball team starting in the 1991-1992 season. In his five years as head coach, his teams compiled a 53-81 record. But when Quinnipiac made the announcement in 1996 that they would be moving from Division II to Division I, Mecca had a decision to make.
“At that point Jack McDonald had come in, Jack was our A.D.,” Mecca said. “It was clear in Jack’s organizational chart that people who were coaching and doing an administrative job were old school. As we were moving to Division I, Jack felt it was very important that if you’re a coach, you’re a coach and if you’re an administrator, you’re an administrator.”
Even though Mecca had devoted the last 18 years of his life to Quinnipiac basketball, his choice was not as difficult as one might think.
“It was easy for me, at that point, to step away from basketball because to be a Division I basketball coach, you have to be willing to work 365 days a year,” Mecca said. “I got to the point where, after being involved in basketball here for 18 years, that there was more to Billy Mecca than being a basketball coach.”
Mecca’s bio on the Quinnipiac Athletics Web site reads, “Mecca is responsible for all internal operations of the department, including supervision of scheduling, facilities, game officials, game operations and sports medicine.” What that description fails to capture is how Mecca can connect with student-athletes on a much more personal level.
“It’s good for me to be able to have a conversation with an athlete that has nothing to do with how well you’re playing,” Mecca said. “I want you to do well, but it doesn’t matter to me if you don’t do well. I’m here for you to help you become a better person.”
It’s that attitude that has made Billy Mecca a fixture of the Quinnipiac athletic department for the last 32 years. And the man with the southern twang in his voice who’s rarely seen without a smile wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Quinnipiac’s my home. I got my wife, I got my two kids, but clearly Quinnipiac is a close second behind them,” he said. “It’s been an incredible journey, and I hope it continues for an extended period of time.”
Photo credits: Andrew Vazzano