Willis Ferreira won his 400th game as a Nantucket basketball head coach on Tuesday. His impact on Nantucket Athletics has touched thousands of people and the success is reflected through his 400-224 career record. The journey began through a simple favor. Ferreira had no plans to coach basketball leading into the 1993 school year, but island legend and former athletic director Vito Capizzo didn’t want to hear anything about that.
“Vito kept asking me over and over if I would coach the girls team and I was like ‘no no, I can’t do it. They stink too bad,’” Ferreira said laughing. “And he kept just bugging me and bugging me and I finally said alright I’ll do it one year and if I don’t like it, I’m out.”
Fair to say Ferreira liked it. That one season quickly became 30, and that one favor helped Ferreira discover his passion for coaching that he has continued to live out ever since.
“I just love what I do,” Ferreira said. “The relationships I have made along the way coaching the guys, the girls, I have had some of the most amazing assistant coaches and a number of athletic directors. It is why I am still here because I enjoy every second of it.”
Ferreira coached the girls basketball program from 1993 to 2011 and has coached the boy’s program since 2012. He was born and raised on Nantucket. He considers himself a gym rat and that started at a young age when as a little kid he would regularly go to the Nantucket Boys & Girls Club after school to shoot hoops and be around the game of basketball. While today's generation of student athletes is different in so many ways to their predecessors, Ferreira enjoys the opportunity to play a part in his athlete's development as not just basketball players, but human beings.
“I am very fortunate to be allowed to continue to do what I do and be able to watch these kids become young men and young women,” Ferreira said. “I am at the point now where I have former players who are now Moms and Dads. The coaching perspective has taught me a lot about how to be a good person and to do things the right way. I try my best to be someone these kids can talk to and trust. Coaching has given me an opportunity to hopefully make a difference in the lives of some of these kids.”
Ferreira said he loves gameday as much as he ever has. His teams have generally been ones who win with grit and effort rather than an overdependence on skill. It has likely played a key role in his ability to oversee competitive and successful teams year after year on an island where the athlete pool is limited. But the quantity of players isn’t always as important as the quality. Ferreira is thankful for the quality players he has had the privilege to coach.
“I know I complain sometimes about these kids, but I don’t think I would want it any other way,” Ferreira said. “It is just part of who I am and what I do. I have had some real good players and assistant coaches along the way. I have had an administration that keeps bringing me back.”
But no one can coach for 30 years and never adjust their coaching style. Ferreira admits that as he has gotten older, he has needed to adapt and simply learn to lean on others for help. His players continue to respect him and treasure playing for him. It is evident through their interactions with him during practice on a daily basis, after games, and on Tuesday evening in particular as they all huddled around him after winning number 400.
The ability to develop these relationships and create a bond that motivates the five players on the court to play 32 minutes of all-out basketball every night is as strong as ever. But when it comes to teaching the game of basketball, he credits his assistant coaches Andrew Benson and Mike Ferreira for their assistance in helping him continue to relate to his players and develop their games.
“I am not the best teacher in the world anymore because I don’t have the patience I used to have which is why you need good assistant coaches,” Ferreira said. “I have that in Andrew and Michael. Those two are as good as it gets. They are amazing.”
When will the journey end? Ferreira hasn’t thought much about that. Even after Tuesday's game, he said he looked at that win as win 8 rather than win 400 (his team is 8-7 this season).
Ferreira still loves going into the gym and being around his players. He takes losses as hard, if not harder than his players. Anytime he thinks he may be done mentally, he wakes up the next day excited for another opportunity to go into the gym and work with his guys on getting better than they were the day before. But he doesn’t shy away from the reality that he won’t be coaching forever.
“I have told Travis (Lombardi, Nantucket’s Athletic Director) a thousand times because he has been around me for a long, long time that he is my boss now, I understand that, and when he thinks it is time for me to go to tell me to go and I will,” Ferreira said. “I don’t want to hang on or if the game has passed me by or I can’t relate to kids anymore, I want him to be honest with me. I’ve been lucky to continue being asked to come back.”
But that discussion is for the future. For now, Ferreira has one thing on his mind.
"I just want to win game nine," he said.