Dave Halligan admits that many of his messages are clichés. Phrases like “success is directly proportional to the amount of work you put in” and “preparation begins now” are among his mantras.
“Sometimes people will say, ‘He keeps saying the same things,'” said Ben Pausman, a senior captain and midfielder on the Falmouth High boys soccer team. “But they are meaningful and they work. With him, it’s all about trusting the process. He knows what he’s doing, and once you buy in, it’s a recipe for success.”
Halligan’s players have been buying for 44 years. Late last week, the Falmouth manager picked up his 500th career football win. Halligan has also won more than 500 games as a men’s basketball coach, a rare feat in any sport.
Halligan, 70, is the first coach in the state to reach 500 wins in two sports, according to longtime observers of high school sports in Maine.
“No one else has,” said Cooper Higgins, who as Falmouth’s athletic director hired Halligan in 1987 and now serves as an assistant on Halligan’s football staff. “And to spend consecutive seasons, from football to basketball. This is amazing.”
Halligan fell in love with sports while growing up in Falmouth, then played football and basketball at the University of Southern Maine. He became head coach of the Cape Elizabeth boys soccer team in 1979 at the age of 27, compiling a record of 79-46-16 over eight years before being hired at Falmouth in 1987. Overall, he has a record of 501-157-66 as a player. football coach, including 12 state championships at Falmouth.
He also began coaching basketball at Falmouth in 1987 and has a record of 564-142 with six state titles.
Like most of Falmouth’s players, Pausman is significantly taller than his rotund, white-haired coach who, with his mischievous grin, could pass for Santa Claus if he wore a beard.
But they all admire Halligan, Pausman said.
“Whenever he speaks, everyone stops what he’s saying,” Pausman said. “Everyone pays attention to him. He doesn’t talk much, but when he does, we have so much respect for him and he’s been with Falmouth for so long, I just think he’s a revered person. We take everything he says to heart.”
Former players say the same thing.
“He still loves the game. He still has a healthy sense of humor,” said Gabe Hoffman-Johnson, who was a three-time state champion and two-time All-American at Falmouth when he played for Halligan from 2006-09. “We always appreciated that and, frankly, it’s a great way to communicate, a way to relate to your players, that healthy youth appreciation for the game. And he’s clearly having fun while training.”
Halligan said he has changed as a coach over the years.
“I’d like to say I think I’m more compassionate,” she said. “As a young manager, you’re more interested in winning games and being successful, and once you’ve done that, you don’t worry as much, although a lot of people think they do. You think more about the whole student, the whole person.”
Halligan never cuts a player from the football program. In basketball, sometimes he can’t find a spot for every student, so he created a player/manager role that allows a willing student to be a scout team player in practice and participate as a statistician during games Keeping as many students involved as possible is important because, for some, sports can be a much-needed sanctuary.
“There are a lot of mental health issues today. How have I changed? How have the coaches changed? You have to look at the issues these kids have to deal with,” Halligan said. “It’s the advent of technology. It’s all out there. They’re exposed to problems 24 hours a day and they’re still young, still developing.”
One of Halligan’s core themes is that senior leadership is vital. “Let’s go as far as the adults take us” is one of the favorite phrases. And he talks about every senior, whether he’s a star or a sub.
When Falmouth was in the midst of a four-game losing streak this fall, Halligan sidelined senior captains Pausman and Mason Quiet. The message was simple: we are okay and your goals are still achievable.
“He encouraged us a lot. He was very optimistic about the next four games,” Quiet said. “One thing he does say is, ‘Nobody cares if you lost to Gorham, Scarborough, whoever, if we have the championship ball at the end of the season. And the team reacted really well to that.”
An emphasis on detail and preparation remains a hallmark of Halligan’s approach. Each practice is well designed, with an emphasis on small, individual skill work designed to improve specific areas.
Ben Raymond, the head boys football, lacrosse and swimming coach at Cape Elizabeth, played football for Halligan at Cape from 1984 to 1986. He incorporates what he learned from Halligan into his own style of coach
“Everything (at Halligan’s practices) had meaning and fit into what we wanted to accomplish on game day, and I definitely try to do that,” Raymond said.
“The other thing was he had a great rapport with all the players,” Raymond added. “It didn’t matter if you were the best player or maybe not the best. He took the time to work with everyone and figure out what made you work.”
Halligan is also a dedicated scout. “He scouts like crazy,” said Higgins, the Falmouth assistant. “He’ll examine a team three times before he plays it.”
Case in point: On Monday, he asked his wife, Joy, if she’d like to go out to dinner, after scouting a game between South Portland and Scarborough in case Falmouth sees either team in the playoffs. Joy came to the game, as she has for decades since they married in 1975.
“He loves to coach,” Higgins said. “He will go to his sepulchral coach.”
Halligan isn’t sure he’ll train that long, but he’s not ready to give up. After all, since he retired as a high school PE teacher in 2020 after 45 years, he has a lot of extra free time.
“I still enjoy what I do. It’s a great activity,” Halligan said with a laugh. “It keeps you young because you’re involved with young people.”