‘He’s taken the path the right way’: Tory Verdi plants his flag
UMass women's basketball's head coach makes his mark on a ever-expanding program
January 6, 2023
Tory Verdi referenced a video while on a Zoom call in November 2021. Not because it was a learning experience and not because it was an example of success by a team under his mentorship. Nothing to do with basketball actually.
Thuds of a beat masked by the screams of “aye” echoed through the small space. As Verdi’s finger pointed in the air in rhythm with the song; the screams heightened. He then hit the sprinkler before his final move, a fluid combination of the vintage lawnmower, ending with a hip twist of some sorts.
The Eastern Michigan University locker room was amped. Verdi too. EMU advanced to the 2015 Mid-American Conference finals, riding an eight-game win streak. Celebrations were valid.
On that Zoom call, Verdi was asked if he pulled out any post game dance moves following the Massachusetts women’s basketball win over Kent State in the 2021 Florida Gulf Coast Showcase. He didn’t. Proving he does know how to bust a move, he referenced when the EMU locker room briefly turned into a dance studio.
In the locker room with the Eagles that defeated Ball State 75-65 on that day stood Carly Thibault, the daughter of Mike Thibault, who hung up his coaching hat just a month ago as the WNBA’s all-time winningest coach.
When Carly was in middle school, she served as a ballgirl from her father’s WNBA team, the Connecticut Sun. Behind Thibault as head coach, sat Verdi as a volunteer assistant. Flash forward to when Verdi found his first leadership position at EMU, Carly brought a familiar face to Verdi’s staff. She served as Verdi’s assistant from 2014-2016, adding two WNIT appearances and one 2015 Mid-American Conference Championship Game to her now head coaching resume.
“Life comes full circle, the basketball world is both a big and small circle at the same time,” Mike Thibault says.
Mike and Tory first met when an eager 30 year old Verdi approached the Connecticut Sun program, offering a helping hand for basically anything the team may need. People who knew Mike spoke highly on Tory’s behalf. By nature of interest, Mike held a meeting and welcomed him to the volunteer position.
“He was a young coach who didn’t feel entitled … he wasn’t asking for anything other than an opportunity,” Thibault says. “That is a good example for a lot of young coaches who say they want to work hard and be in the business then when it comes time to really do it, some bail on you. Tory was one that never bailed, he just did whatever he had to do”
Working hard, in some ways, just came easy for Verdi.
In December of 1972, Beverly Verdi was told her newborn son had a 50/50 chance of living. Born Salvatore Verdi Jr., as he was later known, Tory, had to fight; the doctor said the chances of surviving pneumonia were entirely up to his body.
He persevered, without any knowledge that he was quite literally, fighting for his life. “He pulled through beautifully, and he continues to be a fighter, strong and tough,” Beverly says of Tory.
“I always look back at that time as the first step in his life that showed the type of person he was going to turn into.”
Giving up was never part of Tory Verdi’s M.O. Persistence was in his nature; it was in the Verdi blood.
His father, Salvatore P. Verdi was born in Belvedere, Sicily in 1943, before finding his way to Connecticut. In high school, Sal wanted a rigorous course selection to prepare him for college. When his advisor got wind of his college aspirations, they made one thing clear: “you’re not going to college.”
Beverly proudly states from her home in Connecticut many decades later that his response was a stern “Oh yes I am.”
Central Connecticut State University became their love hub. The two education majors met by way of a CCSU basketball game when, as Beverly described, Sal was being obnoxious. Hesitant at first to take his dinner request, Beverly finally agreed.
Eventually Beverly and Sal’s home grew, with Tory rounding out the Verdi children as the youngest of three. Sal spent his lifetime as a guidance counselor, coaching high school football. Beverly dabbled in middle and elementary education. Their home continued to grow with their chosen family– the football team. Sausage, spaghetti, meatballs, bread or desserts, Italian cooking was on full display, in large quantities, as Sal had his team over frequently.
“It wasn’t until later on that I figured it out, it was how he built a rapport and a relationship with his players,” Verdi says of the team dinners.
His father wanted Tory to play football, as his older brother did. “You’ll be a great tight end,” Sal would say. But Sal was rejected and met with the sound of his son’s basketball, day or night, shooting around in the driveway for hours. Sal taught at New Britain High School but Tory wanted to go to Saint Thomas Aquinas High School because it was in his mind, a “basketball school.” He spent a fifth year at Cheshire Academy but only received the equivalent of a walk-on position at Keene State. By his senior year, he was captain, leading a team he once wasn’t guaranteed to be on.
The love for basketball was stronger than his father’s dedication to the game of football.
The Mullins Center’s large stage puts pressure on fans to amplify the athlete’s energy. No matter how far away any spectator sits, Verdi’s body language and visible passion is crystal clear. To some it may read a vibrant coach on the sidelines but to Beverly, “the older he gets, the more I see his dad in him.”
The way he holds his hands, the way he looks on the court. Sal’s presence remains. Before his father’s passing in 2017, competitive nature was passed down from one generation to another.
His wife, Heather Verdi, starts to giggle when she begins telling this story. “Well, as you know, Tory is very competitive,” she says.
The Mattabesett Canoe Club in Middletown, Conn., was formerly America’s Cup. On the water, a college bar that one night served drinks to Heather and Tory. Tory saw her from across the room, and he asked for her I.D based on the belief that she wasn’t old enough to be there.
Heather wasn’t buying it, the flirty banter didn’t catch her eye immediately but she played along, handing him her license. December 28 it read. The same birthday as Tory’s, just one year apart.
“Oh gosh, maybe I have to go out with him now,” Heather thought. But now as she sits back in her home, apologizing for her dog barking in the background while answering questions about her husband of 23 years, she is forever grateful she said yes to him eventually. The two wedded in Brookfield, about 50 miles from where they said their first hello. Diana Ross, Lionel Richie, endless love.
Not just in pick up lines and dating tactics but in stubbornness as well, Tory was Sal.
In 2005, Heather and Tory just welcomed their eldest of three, Tyler, into the world when Nebraska came into consideration. After the Connecticut Sun prepared Tory for exactly what he wanted to do, the University of Nebraska offered an assistant position.
“Mom, Dad, we are moving to Nebraska,” Tory said. To which Sal pulled an uno card reversal. “No you’re not,” he said. This time, Verdi quickly said “oh yes I am.”
Tory eventually convinced his two guiding posts, starting on the Cornhuskers’ staff in 2005. Five years in the Midwest — from 2005-2010 — after both Heather and Tory spent most of their time in southern New England. Given the distance, new traditions formed, family became chosen, and as Heather says, basketball teams for them have always been their family.
“Especially when we moved to the Midwest, we didn’t have any family nearby. So the basketball teams really just become our children’s family,” she said. Holidays, dinners, special occasions, it was teams and players entering the Verdi’s door, when blood relatives were thousands of miles away.
While normal, it was never easy. As their family grew, so too did the time Heather spent solo. Young children and a husband who traveled frequently for work dealt Heather a complex hand but she eventually learned to play it productively. Their youngest, Bradyn, used to look at airplanes in the sky and think his father was always on board, given how typical it was for dad to fly somewhere with a team. The chaotic lifestyle meant she leaned into routines, organization and always had unconditional love to provide for her children. She supports Tory, allowing basketball to remain a cornerstone of their family.
What was apparent to everyone was that Verdi wanted a program to rebuild. “He wanted to get into programs where he could make a difference,” Beverly says. So he sought out opportunities that allowed his own coaching philosophy to be rooted in growth, not prior success.
There was a stop at University of Kansas, as an assistant, before things fell into place at EMU, where Tory stepped into his first head coaching gig. In the 2013-14 season, Verdi, having only won just eight games the year prior, led the Eagles to a 24 win season. In his second campaign, they won 22 games, securing the MAC’s No. 1. recruiting class twice during his tenure. He turned the program around, almost like a storybook moment where the protagonist works hard to reach the goal in mind. But he still left after the ‘16 season.
November 10, 2022. UMass just fell to the No. 5 Tennessee Lady Vols 74-65. Home opener for Kellie Harper’s squad. Thompson-Boling Arena was louder than an average night at Mullins. Weeks prior Verdi said if he could eat dinner with any coach dead or alive, Pat Summitt was making the cut. His team just finished up playing in the arena filled with a culture the Hall of Fame coach built. Sports Information Director Hana Johnson recognized the small size of the Diet Coke bottles — Verdi’s favorite beverage — so she got him two.
“Coach,” she yelled up the hallway leaving the arena on route to the post game press conference.
He didn’t hear her at first, she went closer, with just a tap, and presented him with the two bottles.
“Do you know that I love you?” Verdi replied.
Verdi greeted media members with arguably his favorite player to advocate for, junior guard Ber’Nyah Mayo. The floor general and the head coach make a great team; he knows how to get her to smile. For the members of the UMass media crew, it wasn’t the first time Verdi told stories of how quiet Mayo was upon first arrival in the 413, but to the locals from Knoxville, Tenn., it was a wholesome, new story.
Verdi told the group they should see Mayo play dodgeball, see that loud, competitive energy come out. Mayo smiled; more of a smirk actually.
Mayo received no other Division I offers besides Verdi’s. It wasn’t a sympathy move, rather the belief Mayo had a lot to give at the highest level. Since then, she’s proven Verdi exactly right. The junior guard has started every single game since arriving on campus. In her sophomore season, she averaged nine points along with leading UMass in steals. She totaled 79 in the 2021-22 season, which ranked second in the Atlantic 10. Mayo carried her team to victory in Delaware, bringing home a college championship in the town she grew up in, three years after Verdi formally expressed belief in her future abilities.
The banner drop before the first game of the 2022 season put a tear in Verdi’s eyes. The tribute video, the applause, the reminder that just months ago in March, the Minutewomen were dancing. It sent Verdi right back to that headspace when he first arrived on campus.
“Seven years ago I took this job … from my visit, coming to campus, I knew this could be special but you don’t really know what it’s like until you get here.”
But UMass was terrible. Before Destiney Philoxy, Sam Breen, Sydney Taylor and Mayo, the Minutewomen roster was a hodgepodge of unsuccessful basketball. Soccer players in basketball jerseys, losing records, embarrassing defeats. No culture, no pride. Sometimes just six players dressed.
“Going from that period to winning the Atlantic 10 Championship, it’s come full circle,” Verdi says. “Great administration that supports us … believed in me, that walked with me step for step … to have that support, with a group of players and coaches, is a recipe for success.”
The 2021-22 season soared new heights for UMass basketball. The Minutewomen took home its first Atlantic 10 Championship, went to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998 and tallied the most wins in program history, finishing 26-7 overall.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people, ‘sit back and enjoy it’ but for me personally, just the way I am wired. I am already moving on to the next year,” Verdi says.
When asked what his summer looked like outside of basketball, Verdi only talked about basketball. He didn’t sit poolside with his shiny chunk of metal on display, but instead he was garnering what he thinks is his most talented Minutewomen roster. In August, pre-season thoughts were briefly interrupted with dad tears. Heather and Verdi took Tyler to Louisiana State University, far from home, but where he could write his own story, follow his own path. The loving parents had their emotional moments but in October, parents weekend put Verdi in the fan seat for a change. He could be a dad, he could cheer LSU football with his son next to him, not having to think about when to call a timeout.
With job success and three children to raise, Verdi shifted focus far from himself and his well being.
Hadley, Mass., is a farm town people outside of the area often ignore. They think cows and corn, but to Heather and Tory’s family, it’s their new home. Just 3.6 miles from Mullins sits a Planet Fitness. The overflow of UMass students in the on-campus gym sends some dedicated weight lifters to the obscure placement of the less busy gym: inside a shopping mall. On an early morning, it’s likely you can catch Tory Verdi there too.
He’s learned to value a routine. Waking up at the same time every day no matter what, drinking the same amounts of coffee but “I’m not going to tell you those amounts because they are astronomical, a little bit too much,” he says, and turning off his phone when he walks through the gym doors. It’s his sense of peace, his opportunity to set focus.
“I need that time for myself and I think through the course of the years, taking care of myself wasn’t always the No. 1 priority, it’s been taking care of the people that I work with and the people on my team,” Verdi says.
A gray-ish couch, L-shaped, throw pillows and cozy blankets. Fireplace on, Heather by his side, dog snoozing. “We have a lot of couch sessions where he will vent or just share what occurred during the day just to get it off his chest,” Heather says. Pockets of peace, advice given, an ear to listen to no matter if it’s basketball or not, the couple remain dedicated to each other for stress relief. Decompressing, with family around.
“It’s pretty much every night. Yeah. Sometimes it’s just quiet. We might just sit there quietly but yeah, we have our same seat on the couch,” she adds.
In a similar but not exact vein of his routine, the two developed some superstitions. When the Minutewomen take the court, Heather likes to munch on peanut M&Ms for good luck, and she takes note of jewelry worn during a big win. In March 2022, riding the wave of triumph in the A-10 tournament, Verdi refused to fix his hair despite Heather’s request. His hair might have shown some gray, his black zip up shirt may have been worn the day before but it didn’t matter, he wasn’t changing anything up.
At Chasefield House in Wilmington, Delaware, part of Verdi’s routine was slightly altered, but for good reason. Mike Thibault was calling the championship game for ESPN, the old friend found his former assistant for some pre-game thoughts.
“I told him to have fun with it, that his team was ready and that whatever was going to happen was going to happen … enjoy it.”
Once his volunteer assistant, then head coach with his daughter by Verdi’s side, Mike called the final seconds of UMass’ 62-56 win fighting emotions.
“More than anything, I am so proud of somebody like him,” Thibault says. “He’s taken the path the right way.”
Verdi danced with EMU, he cried with UMass. Pictures may highlight his uncolored grays or days-old shirts but the tears and passion mask the flaws. Heather and their daughter Avery stepped onto the court not long after the buzzer sounded, as the UMass players hugged one another, Heather hugged her husband, Avery hugged her dad.
“Having seen Tory have that drive and that strong work ethic,” Heather says. “He is just so passionate, motivated and driven. I say those words over and over again because that is a perfect description of him and just being able to see everything come together in the end was just very surreal.”
Back to last March. 11 p.m. Winter air. Amherst was ready to welcome its new champions back home. As the bus traveled I-95, the Verdi family rushed down I-91. Beverly, his brother, sister, nieces and nephews drove down no matter how late it was and how early work was the next day. The Verdi family didn’t leave Hadley till nearly 2 a.m. but it didn’t matter.
It was a celebration for Verdi, of a love for family, perseverance and as Verdi told his mother on the phone after his win, Sal was watching it all from above. He knew he was.
Lulu Kesin can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Lulukesin.