Local icon: One-on-one with Falcon coach Tom McCarthy

Mantra inspired by Barbara McCarthy in 1967: ‘Beat Pecos’

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Recently, The Taos News was granted the privilege of sitting down to speak with Tom McCarthy, legendary coach and teacher who, along with his late wife, Barbara, led the Taos Central Catholic High School Falcons (27-3) to victory in the Class B state basketball championship in 1967. The interview was originally meant to be a fact-finding discussion about the state win from 50 years ago – an attempt, perhaps, to draw out “Hoosiers”-type lore from the coach who led this small Northern New Mexico school to the pinnacle of basketball glory on the grand stage.

Ultimately, however, the humble coach was more than willing to defer praise to his “kids” and allowed the long stroll down memory lane to become a lively, morning basketball chat – warmed further by February sunlight inside the main sitting room of Casa Benavides Inn.

A brief history

Taos Central Catholic High School opened its doors in 1952 and, in its final years, struggled to carry a student population of more than 100. McCarthy took the helm for the Falcons in 1959 – replacing coach Sam Valerio, who went to Dulce after his stint at Taos Central Catholic – and stayed on as its head coach until the school closed in 1967.

After the team won the title – beating the Pecos Panthers 56-45 in the title game inside the newly christened University “Pit” Arena in Albuquerque – McCarthy went on to coach at St. Michael’s High School in Santa Fe, where he would win two more state titles in 1968 and 1969.

McCarthy returned to coaching in 1978 as the head coach of the Taos Tigers. His son, Tom Jr., played for his dad and was an all-state basketball player who averaged 26 points per game. His highlights included a three-game stretch during the Capital City tournament during which he scored 90 points – a rare feat in high school basketball.

Barbara McCarthy passed away June 4, 2016.

Questions

How many teams have you coached in your career?

Four. I started my coaching career in Antonito, Colorado. I was there for one year and then came to Taos Central in 1959. I was here continuously until the school closed in 1967. I then went to St. Michael’s and coached for two years there, and I coached two years at Taos High School in the late ‘70s.

What inspired you to coach?

I played basketball in high school and college and actually led my team to the national championship as its leading scorer. I played for a team out of Atchison, Kansas, called St. Benedict’s College that had two national championships. We weren’t so lucky, though. We went to Kansas City and I guess you could say we “froze.” But it was the love of playing basketball all my life that inspired me to want to coach.

Was there a particular coach that you wanted to emulate?

I just emulated my college coach, Ralph Nolan, who taught us about ball control. We ran patterns and we were good on defense – a very deliberate style. That’s what we did at Central as well. We were a very good defensive team and we ran lots of plays. That’s what carried us and helped us win state in ‘67.

Can you elaborate on the rivalry between Taos and Central?

It was tough because my wife taught at Taos and it wasn’t easy for her to be my assistant at Central. It got so bad that one year they had to cancel the game on us. When we went to the Stu Clark Tournament in ‘66, I wished we would play Taos – and we did. We beat them pretty good that year. When Central closed, I tried to work for Taos, but it just didn’t work out. That’s when I decided to go work for St. Mike’s High School.

Do you have a game that stands out? Perhaps a loss that still gives you fits?

Yes — when I coached at Taos for two years, where my son, Tom Jr., was playing. I took the job late, so we didn’t have a summer program and we started a bit behind schedule. In any case, we had beaten St. Michael’s three times that year and we ran into them at the district tournament and they beat us in our place by one point. That knocked us out of contention for the state tournament and ended our season. That was the most heartbreaking loss because my son didn’t get to go to state.

Did that one keep you up at night?

Oh, yeah. That was the most crushing defeat. I would dream about it all the time – wondering what I could have done differently.

Walking into the “Pit” back in 1967, was that your first visit to the brand-new arena? If so, what was that like for you?

Oh, yes. It was awe-inspiring. Even Johnson (Gymnasium) was awe-inspiring back in those days. We had a great team back in 1964, and I think the enormity of that arena got to us and we played flat. The Pit was awesome.

How did you allay the fears of your players in 1967?

It was all my wife, Barbara. She had a lot to do with it as my assistant coach. She was so positive and energetic. She was the inspiration. She was my inspiration. Also, the kids were so strong – physically and mentally — so I didn’t have to do much because there wasn’t much fear there to begin with. I can honestly say, “There was no fear in those kids.”

Did you consider a pre-practice pep talk to calm nerves as you made your way down to the Pit floor?

As regional champs, these guys were already full of confidence, so all Barbara and I had to do was keep things positive. As a matter of fact, we really strived to keep basketball positive. In all my years at Central, she was my only assistant – ever. We had to do everything, including coaching the lower grades as well. But before the state title game, she took the time to sew these letters on the backs of the kids’ jerseys that read, “Beat Pecos.” It was that sort of thing that gave the kids the extra incentive to go out and perform.

Did you have a sports bucket list in your career?

No, we had businesses here, and me teaching at St. Mike’s was really tough. It was hard commuting and teaching. When my father died, we had to step up and take care of the family businesses. Plus, we owned cattle. Since we were involved in so many things, sports got to be too much. I was never interested in being an athletic director, although I pretty much did all that at Central along with coaching the kids.

Have you ever had a favorite team that you followed?

My favorite team is Duke, but I also like the Kansas Jayhawks because we grew up and went to school in Kansas. I also have a soft spot for the [University of New Mexico] Lobos.

What was your shot in high school?

The jump shot. All of them were from three-point range. I shot 49 percent from the field in high school and broke scoring records.

Is there something that I didn’t ask that you would like to mention?

Well, we talked a lot about me, but really, it’s all about the boys. These kids had a good attitude and they wanted to win. They knew they were going to win a state championship, and they did. Pecos was the top team during that time, and beating them three out of four times that year meant they truly were the champs. Also, if you could put something in regarding Barbara, as she was quite the human being.

Fifty years later

The 1967 Central Falcons basketball players and McCarthy were paid tribute during halftime of the Taos Tigers’ season finale at Otero Gymnasium Feb. 14. During the ceremony, a proclamation from Taos Mayor Dan Barrone was read, summing up that crowning achievement in Taos’ basketball history. The document reads as follows.

Prelude

The Taos Central Catholic Falcons were crowned Class B state champions in basketball with a win over the Pecos Panthers by a final score of 56-45 inside the “Pit” in Albuquerque, NM on March 11, 1967.

Proclamation

Whereas, a group of young men from the Taos Central Catholic High School participated in the first high school game played inside the “Pit” in the quarterfinal game against the Santa Rosa Lions March 9, 1967; and

Whereas, members of the team included Alex Martinez, Donald Martinez, Karl Martinez, Michael Martinez, George Mirabal, Tommy Montoya, John Ortiz, Manuel Ortiz, Arthur Romo, Alonzo Trujillo, Herman Trujillo and Raymond Vigil; and

Whereas, the team was coached by Tom McCarthy and assisted by his wife Barbara; and

Whereas, the Taos Central Falcons participated in and were victorious in the first high school championship game to be played inside the “Pit” in the Class B finals against the Pecos Panthers March 11, 1967; and

Whereas, a public tribute to the team, heretofore known as the “Fabulous Falcons” was made inside Otero Gymnasium on the campus of Taos High School on February 14, 2017 to recognize the success of the ‘67 basketball team, to remember teammates who have passed on and to honor the legacy that this special team has imparted on the community of Taos.

Thus, The Office of the Mayor of Taos acknowledges that on March 11, 1967, a rare yet dynamic accomplishment occurred for the community of Taos, New Mexico; and recognition is hereby bestowed upon the Taos Central Catholic High School Falcons on the 50th anniversary of the team’s achievement.

Now, therefore, be it resolved by the Office of the Mayor of Taos, that March 11 will heretofore be known as Taos Central Falcons Day.

Dated, this fourteenth day of February, 2017.

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