Beyond the Lines is a (bi)weekly profile story on a coach or athlete that goes beyond the fields and courts. The goal of these profiles is to discuss what makes them who they are– core values they live by, their relationships with others, what is meaningful to them, and more. Beyond the coaching and student-athlete roles these individuals play, at the end of the day we are all human.
It could be pouring rain or cold enough to see your breath, but Marist men’s soccer head coach Matt Viggiano can always be found wearing shorts. He doesn’t seem to much care what others think – he’s just being himself. It’s what he knows how to do best.
Since a very young age, he’s been molding himself into the person he is now.
Viggiano grew up outside of New York City in a Westchester County apartment for the first 10 years of his life. It was an affluent community, but his parents Ellen and Leonard worked long days at The New York Public Library to put food on the table for him and his older brother Michael.
“My parents both worked full-time, so I was what they call a latchkey kid,” Viggiano said. “I get out of school, and up to a certain age, third or fourth grade, I’d go to after school programs and [my parents would] pick me up at six o’clock. But then once I got to be 10 [years old], I’d get out of school, go home, and I’d have to take care of myself.”
Viggiano’s responsibilities entailed more than just taking care of himself; he also had to look after his brother, who has cerebral palsy. During summers while their parents were working, their parents gave them money to take a cab to summer camp or to their aunt’s house.
Taking care of his brother for several years helped him become more selfless and self-aware, just one part of what makes him who he is now.
When Viggiano wasn’t looking after his brother, he would sometimes play pickup basketball with other kids at the local park, most of whom were racial minorities whose families didn’t have much money.
“It’s hard sometimes as a kid because you’re growing up in a community where people have a lot, where people walk around with name brand clothes and are driving nice cars and everything. ” Viggiano said.
Despite the wealth in the immediate community, he relates more to the strong work ethic of those of blue-collar families, immigrants, and first generation students.
“I had a car in high school where I literally stapled the roof. I grew up around such affluent people. I try to sell this to my kids and recruits, I feel like I can talk to a CEO of a company. But I can also speak to somebody who cleans toilets for a living and everybody in between, and then I don’t value one more than the other. I’d rather talk to that guy to be honest,” he said.
During his teenage years and in college, Viggiano worked hard to prove people wrong, especially at the athletic level.
“I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder when it comes to that,” Viggiano said. “I remember being in grade school and people called me ‘shrimpy’ and it’s always been that way. But I was willing to scrap with anybody. I was never fearful of anything, especially on the athletic field. I got that from my mother who’s a 4’ 11” Irish woman but tough as nails.”
As a young soccer player looking towards college, he was told time and again by several coaches he would never be able to play at the Division I level.
“I remember my junior year in high school, my club coach sat me down and told my parents. He was like, ‘What does Matt wanna do for college?’ And they’re like, ‘Play Division I.’ Then he was like, ‘Yeah, you should probably look at some other options,’” he said.
He set out determined to prove his coach wrong, attending the University of Albany where the team transitioned to Division I during his freshman year. He made the team and was a starter until he suffered a torn hamstring as they punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament.
“The day after I was hurt, I was standing on crutches, we had a team meeting and I was starting as a freshman. He told the whole team that the only reason I played was because I was fast,” Viggiano said. “So as a kid, I’m 18 years old, I’m crushed because I had an injury that was miserable and that’s what my coach said out loud.
“That’s a story that happened 30 years ago, and I still carry that to this day and I learned how I didn’t want to be toward my players, and it motivated me.”
None of those coaches ever said Viggiano wasn’t a good player. It was his 5-foot-5 height that many saw as a hindrance to his game and how it would translate at the collegiate level.
Yet his height never stopped him from starting on his high school basketball team. It never stopped him from transferring to Marist after spending freshman and sophomore year at Albany. And it certainly never stopped him from becoming the captain of the Red Foxes his junior year.
Not only was he doubted as a player, but Viggiano was also told he would never be able to coach at a Division I level.
“I was a Division I graduate coach at Elmira [College] and we played against Hartwick. I was talking to their two assistant coaches, and they asked me what I wanted to do for a living. I told them I wanted to be a college coach,” Viggiano said. “Then they were like, ‘Where’d you play?’ I said I played at Marist, and they said I had to be really lucky or I had to know somebody because with my background I would never be a head coach.”
And what has he done since? He’s entering his 17th season with the Red Foxes, has over 100 wins to his name in Division I, won a MAAC Coach of the Year award, a MAAC Championship trophy, and made an appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Though Viggiano has dealt with many doubters, he has always stuck to what he knows– being himself. Apart from self-awareness and determination, two traits that make him who he is, cultivating relationships with others is also of high importance to him.
“My wife and I will go places, and it seems like I run into somebody I know. Even if I don’t, I’ll sit in a bar or have a conversation with somebody in a restaurant,” Viggiano said. “If you sit at dinner and I come in, I’ll be listening to three or four conversations. I pipe in here and there, but that drives me and is who I am. I need relationships.”
Then there’s his relationship with his family. He has two daughters; Maia, 15, and Shae, 11, and has been married to his wife Liz for 18 years. He coached his daughters’ soccer teams for a few years, something that truly brought them together.
His wife Liz, on the other hand, is his biggest supporter through everything, even if he sometimes is a bit of a pain to deal with.
“My wife’s a great mother. She’s a worker bee. I just respect her so much as a human being,” Viggano said. “She’s the most honest person I’ve ever met. She’s my rock and allows me to do this [coach]. She’s as good a person as you’ll find, so I lucked out in that respect. I always joke around with people that she’s a better human being.”
He’s certainly grown as a person by being a husband and a father, but one thing that hasn’t changed is having the inner child within him.
“I’m like a child, I need a ball to chase around, like some type of stimulation as a kid. And I don’t think I’ve ever lost that. I think I learned that from my dad a little bit. I’m always gonna be a big kid like that. I think once you stop being that way, you kind of lose your zeal for life. You’ve got to enjoy yourself– no matter what you have to try,” Viggiano said.
Whether it’s starting conversations with strangers, bonding with family, staying active, or proving people wrong, the man in shorts always knows how to be himself– rain or shine.
Edited by Luke Sassa and Andrew Hard
Photos from Matt Viggiano