A Falcon Family
Three decades of football memories will line the field tonight
Tonight, just before kickoff in the season-opening game against Monte Vista, Foothill High School will honor Matt Sweeney's 25 years as head coach of the Falcon football team.
Family and friends will gather in the stands, and former players and alumni representing nearly three decades of football memories will line the field. Beverly and Neil Sweeney will be cheering for their son from the bleachers, sitting beside Matt's wife, Trish, and plenty of longtime Pleasanton friends. More than a few of Matt's 20 nieces and nephews are likely to be chasing around the track while any number of his seven brothers and sisters watch from the sidelines, analyzing Foothill's prospects for the season.
They'll be there to celebrate Matt and all his accomplishments, but for the Sweeney clan, this is not so different from most football Friday nights under the lights of the Sweeney Athletic Complex.
The Sweeney family connection to Foothill began in 1973, which was 13 years before Matt's 1986 appointment as head football coach. That was the year Matt's father, Neil, left Amador after 22 years of teaching, administration and, yes, coaching football, to take the position as principal of Pleasanton's new high school.
Intrigued by the opportunity to help create the philosophy and policies that would shape the new school for decades, leaving for a cross-town rival was an easy decision for Neil. For his wife, Beverly, the transition was not so comfortable.
"I wore purple socks to the games and chewed sunflowers seeds to keep from making too many comments," she recalled with a laugh. "But I've given over my loyalties; it's all Foothill, now."
It would be hard to blame Bev if she still has a couple pairs of purple socks hidden in a drawer. All eight of the Sweeney children graduated from Amador, the youngest, Danny, in 1983.
"That's 33 years of Sweeneys at Amador," noted Neil.
The year 1983 is, coincidentally, when Matt was hired to teach at Foothill.
Matt's allegiance has been with the Falcons since the day he stepped on campus as a U.S. history teacher.
"I guess I was an Amador coach for one day," he admitted, smiling. "I was coaching (Foothill) freshman football and JV baseball in 1985 and Amador called to offer me the head baseball job there. I took it, but it bothered me all night long. I called them the next day and told them I just couldn't do it."
The following summer the Foothill varsity football coaching position opened up and the Sweeney football legacy began.
For those doing the math, the numbers don't quite add up. From 1986-2012 would make this Matt's 26th year of leading Falcon football. But there was one year when Matt thought he was ready to hand over his playbook.
In 2007, Sweeney's oldest daughter, Danielle, was tearing it up on the soccer field at the University of Oregon while his younger daughter, Kelly, was playing softball and getting ready to graduate from Foothill. Wanting to concentrate on his time with them and knowing the program would be safe under the guidance of his longtime assistant and good friend, John Mannion, Sweeney retired from the gridiron.
"That was a bad year," remembered Kelly. The rest of the family agrees.
"I thought he would be ready," said Trish. "It wasn't a decision he made lightly. For two or three years he talked about it, so I thought he understood how it would be. But he really was unhappy."
"I had no idea how hard it would be," Sweeney said wryly. "During football season I would meet Kelly on the (softball) fields to practice and I would park my car around the back, on the street, and walk up so I wouldn't have to see all the cars back there (on campus), knowing they were practicing."
Sweeney waited till the season was over then admitted to Mannion how much he missed the program. Mannion insisted that Sweeney should take back his old position the following season.
"I can't be here and not be a part of football," Sweeney acknowledged. "If I'm ever going to leave the program, I'm going to have to leave Foothill."
Kelly insists it will never happen, that her dad will end his days on earth at the Falcon football field, but Matt can imagine finishing his coaching career with the freshman team.
"At that level it's all about developing the players," he said. "That is where the game is at its purest."
Sweeney said his family made it easy for him for return to the game, pointing out he couldn't have coached for as long as he has if they didn't support him. Trish agrees. An accomplished athlete in her own right, Trish's love of sports rivals Matt's and she understands his dedication.
"I bought into this a long time ago and we made it our way of life," she said. "Before children, Matt and I went to all of Foothill's games, all of the sports. There's a lot of special traditions in it for us and we have great memories because of it."
Matt concurred, recalling weeks of weight training and summer passing league when he'd bring the girls down and just let them go.
"They were all over that campus on their bikes," he recalled. "Kelly had the key to the snack bar -- she'd load up with candy bars and I wouldn't see her for hours."
Both girls were in close contact with their dad's coaching style and Matt believes they are better for it.
"I didn't pull any punches when they were around," he said. "I think that's what makes the sons and daughters of coaches the best athletes. They understand what it takes to be successful and they are prepared to go out and make the right impression. They get the work done, no questions asked."
Kelly was more than prepared when her father became coach for her varsity softball team, sophomore year.
"I loved it. I knew what kind of coach he is," she said. "I got to have the same experience all his football players had."
That included exceptional success. Kelly's team won North Coast Section her junior year and took East Bay Athletic League her senior year.
"If I could have had him coach me when I played at Boise State, I would have wanted him there, too," she added. "He's a great coach -- he knows how to get the very best out of his players and he's willing to change his game plan to make that happen. He really loves to coach."
That love has certainly been passed on; every member of Matt's coaching staff is a former player, as are Foothill teachers Angelo Scavone and Willy Brown, who head the baseball and basketball programs, respectively.
"You can see the closeness and the intimacy on the sidelines every Friday night," pointed out Dennis Miller, who spent years reporting on high school sports. "Matt is a great football coach, but the key thing for the players at Foothill is that they are better people, having played for him."
Miller, and any Sweeney you talk to, attribute Matt's coaching philosophy to growing up in a family of eight fiercely competitive kids with parents who believe in a real work ethic.
"There was no boys work, no girls work," explained Matt. "We shared a room, we did dishes, we did yard work, we ate every meal together. There was no room to be selfish. There was no middle child, all of us were raised as first children -- to be leaders. That gave us self confidence and that transitions to coaching."
That shared work ethic may be what brings Matt's brothers, Tim and Danny, to the games each week, every season. For 24 years Danny has been an "eye in the sky," as their father puts it, sitting in the press box, analyzing the field and reporting what he sees to his brother below.
"There aren't many people you can be completely frank with and know they won't take it personally," Matt said. "But you can do that with brothers. On Friday night, that's who I want in my ear, that's who I listen to. I trust Dan implicitly."
There's a new Sweeney on campus this year -- Dan's son Ryan is playing on the freshman football team, happy to finally be on the other side of the white line. Tim's son, John, is just a few years behind, literally following in his cousin's footsteps as he watches his uncle's team take the field.
Tonight they will both be at the game, the next generation of Sweeneys to be a part of the future of Foothill High School, celebrating their Uncle Matt's quarter century of Falcon football.
Matt Sweeney career highlights
* Head varsity football coach, Foothill High School, 1986-2006; 2008-present
Four NCS Championships
13 Conference Championships
* 2002 -- Foothill High School dedicates Sweeney Athletic Complex in honor of Neil and Matt Sweeney
* Head varsity softball coach, Foothill High School, 2006-08
2007 -- North Coast Section Championship
2008 -- Conference Champions