When 8-year-old Matthew DiBernardo sat in his parents’ bedroom and watched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play their inaugural preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams on July 31, 1976, he had no idea what was going on. In five months, that all changed.
“I think by the end of that season in 1976, I probably knew more about football than most 7 and 8-year-olds,” DiBernardo said.
The Tampa native and first-year head football coach for Oak Hall School had an early passion for the game that grew rapidly. That passion has evolved over the years and helped him win 2015 Florida Dairy Farmers Coach of the Year for the Independent class. DiBernardo guided the Eagles to a 7-2 record in his first year at the helm after taking over the team that went a combined 2-17 in its previous two seasons.
DiBernardo stressed that the Oak Hall football team was full of good, hardworking kids. He said they just needed a little spark and organization.
“This group was tired of being beaten,” DiBernardo said.
DiBernardo also pointed out that success came from putting emphasis on doing the right thing every day and putting in your best effort. He said that focusing solely on wins and losses was not the way to go.
Oak Hall athletic director Jeff Malloy said that a new voice and direction helped motivate the kids to perform better.
“We have infused new knowledge and expertise into a program that has been coupled with new enthusiasm and the result was seven wins, new program confidence and a hunger for the 2016 season,” Malloy said.
DiBernardo has his fair share of coaching experience, starting as an intern with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the spring of 1989 right before the draft. He went on to coach college football in New York, Delaware, Wyoming and Pennsylvania, where he was most recently the assistant head coach at Wilkes University.
Malloy believes what makes DiBernardo unique is how he has had success at the high school, college and professional levels. This, combined with the fact that he believes in networking and building relationships, is what makes him so successful at what he does, Malloy said.
“Everything that I do comes from mentors and people that I have learned from,” DiBernardo said.
Like other football coaches, DiBernardo strives to succeed on the field. However, he said that there is more to coaching football than hanging a W on the scoreboard at the end of a Friday night.
DiBernardo said that his biggest challenge, but also greatest reward, in coaching is helping build great men who can handle adversity. To him, this is much more important than the Eagles’ record at the end of the season.
“My goal is to help build a better father, a better person in the community,” he said. “That’s much more important than building a better football player.”
DiBernardo believes that athletics can influence personal growth and that coaching football and life skills go hand-in-hand, but said that maturing in age and experience have taught him that the latter is every bit as important as the former. His passion for football, combined with the opportunity to help others, is what drives him to get out of bed every day and be a coach.
DiBernardo’s wife, Lindsay, admires this most about her husband.
“He practices what he preaches,” she said. “He emphasizes that the way the players act on and off the football field is more important than the wins and losses.”
One challenge DiBernardo pointed out for next season is being able to keep his group of guys motivated and hungry for success. He wants to lead them into working as hard as they did last year when they were working to turn it around and gain respect. DiBernardo also wants the football team to have more of a footprint in the community in his second year.
DiBernardo said that coaches always have to find new ways to keep their message fresh and players motivated. This past season, he shared a quote from NFL defensive end J.J. Watt with his team: “Success is not owned, success is leased. Payment is due every day.”
While his players and peers can see just how hard DiBernardo works, nobody is closer to the situation than Lindsay. She said she doesn’t think anyone really realizes how much time and effort he puts in and how he is always striving to be better.
“He watches film constantly, he reads and attends clinics, he reaches out to others who are doing things that he wants to learn more about and implement himself,” she said. “He is very humble and a lot of his success is because he works just as hard to be a better coach as he expects his players to work to become better players.”
DiBernardo said motivation is a vital part to improving a football team, helping to make sure a unit doesn’t get complacent or bored. He said that he believes in keeping the excitement and enthusiasm level high, no matter the circumstances.
“You have to bring the juice every day,” he said.