Former Players, Colleagues Staggered by Death of Coach Byrnes

March 5, 2024
Former Bedford High School boys’ varsity basketball coach Jim Byrnes passed away on Saturday. Courtesy photo

The Bedford sports universe is reeling over the news of the unexpected passing of former Bedford High School boys’ head basketball coach Jim Byrnes on Saturday.

Byrnes, 71, was a longtime Medford resident who most recently lived in Brewster. Visiting hours are 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday at the McDonald-Finnegan Funeral Home, 322 Main St., Stoneham. A Funeral Mass will be celebrated in Saint Joseph Catholic Church, 118 High St, Medford on Monday at 11:30 a.m. 

Byrnes was head coach from September 1994 through the spring of 2015. His teams won 253 games and qualified for the MIAA post-season tournament almost every season. In 2010, he led the Buccaneers to the MIAA Division 3 North sectional championship.

He joined the BHS health and physical education faculty in 1999, retiring in the spring of 2020. He was an avid cyclist and golfer before and after retiring.

BHS Director of Athletics Keith Mangan said he was five years old when he first met Byrnes at Medford’s Camp Arrowhead, where the future coach was director. 

“He was a wonderful human being,” Mangan said. “It’s just heartbreaking. He truly cared for kids, regardless of whether they were his players.” 

The coach came to Bedford from the Middlesex Community College basketball program, but learned his coaching style from former professional coaches Jim O’Brien and Rick Pitino when they were at Boston University.

His high-intensity pressure defense from the opening tap necessitated rotating a lot of players to sustain. 

“Everybody was asked to give up a little bit of himself to become part of something bigger,” he said in a 2019 interview. “We always tried to do it the right way. And the players have the rest of their lives to be friends.” 

For two decades the team would break from every timeout with the mantra, “Hard! Smart! Together!”

Byrnes was inducted into the BHS Sports Hall of Fame as an individual in 2019 and as part of the sectional championship team in 2021.

The Bedford Summer Basketball League plans to rename its Player of the Year award to the Jim Brynes Memorial Trophy, presented to the player “who shows the most passion, toughness, and love for the game.”

Longtime Assistant Coach Joe LeBlanc said Byrnes “was tremendously proud of his accomplishments at Bedford High, and in his view, the wins had little to do with it. In his view, his greatest accomplishments were the relationships that he built. Scores of ex-players remained in communication with him even after his retirement. He wasn’t just building teams or a program, he was building a community.” 

Vin McGrath, the John Glenn Middle School math teacher, played for Byrnes in the 1990s, then returned a few years later as an assistant coach and succeeded him as head coach in 2015. 

“Jimmy Byrnes transformed the culture of the program and his impact reverberates to this day,” McGrath said.  “He positively impacted the lives of hundreds of student athletes over those years. 

“He showed us that together we had the potential to achieve more than we could ever have achieved individually,” he said. “He was generous beyond what anyone would ever know and he truly loved his players.”

Other former players offered similar tributes. 

“Coach Byrnes cared about each and every one of us – more than as basketball players, but as men,” said Dan Rashba, whom Byrnes promoted to varsity status as a freshman early in 1995. “I would not have been the person I am today without the guidance and mentorship of Coach Byrnes.”

Akil Mondesir, METCO director for the Bedford schools and a 1998 BHS graduate, was McGrath’s teammate. He affirmed, “Coach Byrnes has and will continue to be a beacon of inspiration for me and others that he touched on and off the court. His passion for the game ignited a fire in each player, but more so, his willingness to be a mentor and friend shaped not only skilled athletes but also resilient and outstanding global citizens.”

“Coach Byrnes was a complete coach in terms of developing players beyond the game of basketball,” commented Rob Leshin, class of 1999. “He taught effort, resilience, and playing as a team, all life skills that players took with them after they left high school.”  

Jerry Cohen, a 2008 graduate, confided, “After making varsity my freshman year, I had the opportunity to play at a private school.” He remained at BHS “because of the relationship I had developed with coach.” He added that they stayed in contact “to this very day, and every phone call was like new, never skipped a beat.”

Mike Thoresen, a 2010 graduate who played on the sectional championship team, said Byrnes “taught all of us that to be part of something bigger, we’d have to give up part of ourselves.” The experience “on his teams turned me into a harder working and more confident person off the court.”

Justin McAfee, a teacher who has been an assistant football and basketball coach since graduating from BHS in 2012, reflected, “One thing that was always true was his dedication – to the game and to the team. As a coach, I have followed some of his principles, lessons that apply to everyday life.”

“Coach Brynes was a massive influence in my life as a leader, mentor, coach and friend,” declared Mike Dirrane, a 2010 graduate. “His belief in me gave me confidence and identity at a time when I needed them the most.” Dirrane recalled, “On my first day of college I got a call from Jim Byrnes just to wish me luck.”

Retired Athletics Director Bob Petrillo confirmed that “the kids loved him. He was very knowledgeable about how to get the most out of his players. He knew the game, he knew the kids, and he was always a classy guy.”

Matt Hagar, a former player and assistant coach, said, “Coach was an incredible mentor to me. He gave me my first coaching job, and now I try to emulate the way he did things, creating an atmosphere of excitement, passion, and drive.” The 2006 graduate added, “I think his greatest achievement was how many young men’s lives he touched and the bond he created with them.”

Byrnes stepped in as needed to coach other sports during his years at BHS, including boys’ tennis, girls’ junior varsity soccer, and middle school basketball. 

“The relationships he made with students, teachers, other coaches, were just amazing and representative of the person he was,” Mangan testified. “Even when things were tough in his personal life he never let that impact his teaching and coaching.”

“In the silence of his sudden passing, coach’s legacy echoes throughout every dribble, every victory, and all the student and student athletes’ lives he touched,” Mondesir remarked. “May his dedication and spirit continue to inspire not just the basketball community but also the Bedford community as a mentor, a coach and an educator who left an indelible mark on the game and our hearts.”

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