ROSWELL – Mike Whalen is nothing if not fiercely protective of traditions and rituals.
Inside the fieldhouse at Goddard High School, for example, there is a film room, a space that once was the home for Rocket wrestlers.
There are roughly 60 seats inside the room. And all the school’s state football championship banners hang inside this small space.
These are special seats, Whalen says, reserved for players who have earned the right to sit in them.
Everybody else, Whalen says, sits on the floor.
Hardly, Whalen says.
It’s simply part of the Goddard brand. Where earning your keep is not only expected, but demanded.
And that goes for the guy calling the shots, too.
“Goddard High School has the legacy,” he said. “That’s how I look at it. This is Goddard’s legacy. Not mine.”
Whalen, 63, is part of the pool of new head football coaches in New Mexico this fall.
It can be argued that no man, new to the job or already established, will be lit so brightly under the spotlight as will Whalen, who in June was elevated to head coach after Sam Jernigan left Goddard after two brilliant decades in Chaves County.
“I think they’re in great hands,” Artesia coach Cooper Henderson said of the Whalen/Goddard match.
Jernigan now coaches in the Dallas area, and Goddard promoted from within. This is his first head coaching job at the varsity level.
And lest anyone question that Whalen is primed for this challenge, hear his thoughts on how he plans to continue all of Jernigan’s initiatives while putting his own fingerprint on this storied program.
“This program,” he responded in a firm voice, “has just as much of my fingerprint as Sam or anyone else.”
Jernigan hired Whalen 23 years ago. Whalen had been coaching track and field, but wanted to venture into football. He met Jernigan in the spring of 1990 and was hired in the summer of 1991.
Whalen was the freshman coach at Goddard that first year, then joined the varsity staff the following season. Whalen has been the Rockets’ defensive coordinator since the turn of the century, and one of the more revered defensive minds in the state.
“I think coach Whalen is one of those technicians,” said Henderson, whose Bulldogs share a district with Goddard. “He’ll be able to counter whatever you do well, and he’s gonna take care of stopping you or attacking whatever you do well. He’s really good at that.”
It’s rare to find a coordinator and head coach who have such a lengthy relationship at one school, but the partnership with Jernigan flourished, Whalen said, in part because of their shared beliefs.
“It’s kind of a unique place, a unique organization to work for,” said Whalen, who teaches economics and American government at Goddard. “There are a million stories behind our program, certain little traditions, little knick-knack things we do. We kind of take things personal around here. We’re protective about this program.”
The film room seating situation is but one example. On Thanksgiving – a day on which Goddard is almost always still practicing – players are asked to describe what they’re thankful for.
If a player didn’t talk about his family, coaches knew there was a problem.
That’s how Whalen was reared. He was born on a farm about 5½ miles east of Roswell. He is a proud New Mexican, passionate about Roswell the city and Goddard the football program.
“I just never had the desire to leave,” said Whalen, who graduated from Roswell High and Eastern New Mexico. “It was the perfect scenario.”
Indeed, he said he’d had offers to leave the Rockets, but there was, in a football sense, complete domestic bliss at Goddard.
The Rockets are one of the state’s top five programs, regardless of classification, and Whalen’s crafty and attacking defenses have heavily contributed to the school’s parade of blue trophies.
“They’re not gonna miss a stride,” said Clovis coach Eric Roanhaus, whose Wildcat offenses have been butting heads with Whalen’s defenses for many years. The two meet on opening weekend at the Wool Bowl in Roswell on Aug. 30. “He and Sam always got the most out of their kids.”
Jernigan led the Rockets to six state championships before leaving in the spring. Goddard has appeared in the last two Class 4A title games, beating Los Lunas in 2012 and losing to Farmington last December.
“We didn’t miss a lick in the spring,” Whalen said, talking about the transition phase. “We’ve (always) maintained the program the same way. It’ll be tough, it’ll be intense. This program I’m taking over, nothing is changing. Why would you want to change a program that’s been one of the most successful in the state?”
As for the 2014 Rockets, it’s a veteran team by their lofty standards, with a dozen seniors expected to make the roster. “I’m ecstatic,” Whalen said.
And they, just as he, insist on retaining the status quo, including those myriad traditions.
“If we don’t do it that way,” Whalen said, “the kids will be mad at me that I’m not carrying on what Goddard kids have done since 1989.”
But for the first time, he is also a program manager as much as he is a master of Xs and Os. That, he admits, has taken some getting used to.
“There’s something outside football that you have to deal with every day,” Whalen said. “The easiest part of this job is being on the field, and I have great kids. They are loyal and dedicated to this program and to me. I know now why Sam trusted me; the pressures outside of football are tremendous.”
Oddly enough, coaching wasn’t always Whalen’s first career choice. He laughed as he recalled his dream vocation.
“One way or another,” he said, “I was gonna be a game warden. Somehow, things didn’t pan out that way.”
And for the Goddard Rockets, just as well.
“I’ve never been happier,” Whalen said.