Joey Pirillo never made it to Sacramento State as planned.
At this point in his life, the 2004 Manteca High graduate figured he’d be an engineer. Football, as it turns out, took him on a completely different path.
On Monday, Pirillo, now 29, returned to his old stomping grounds as an opposing coach. He was hired by Lathrop High to become its third varsity head football coach last spring. Pirillo played center for Eric Reis’ first two years as head coach at Manteca High in 2002-03. He was selected to participate in the 2004 Lions All-Star Football Classic and competed alongside cousin Andrew Panigada for the North team. Panigada is an assistant coach at Sierra, his alma mater.
Pirillo is the second Buffalo to play for Reis and coach for a rival Valley Oak League team, following 2006 alum Seth Davis, now at Weston Ranch.
“I’m definitely real proud about that,” Reis said. “I root for those guys to win every game except for when they play us. The kid had a tremendous heart when he played for us, is real smart and loyal; those are traits he can pass on to those young men. Lathrop High his very fortunate to have him, for sure.”
Lathrop heads into its seventh varsity season but has had trouble gaining momentum as the smallest public school in the competitive VOL. Jesse Rodriguez was 4-35 from 2009-12, and the Spartans were 3-17 under Steven Wichman the past two years.
“To be honest, (Lathrop) still doesn’t have an identity,” Pirillo said. “That’s my goal right now, is to build one for them.”
Pirillo has no prior head coaching experience but said he offers a wealth of knowledge, along with the ability to “get players to respond.” He also has experience with winning at every level he’s competed at, and he aims to bring the same discipline he picked up as a player for Reis.
His plan out of high school was to attend Sacramento State and pursue a career in engineering, but he was presented an opportunity to continue playing at Delta College.
“After my two years were up (at Delta) I thought football was over for me,” he said. “But then I got a call out of the blue.”
Pirillo went on to play for the University of Minnesota Morris, an NCAA Division III school. There, he helped the Cougars earn the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference championship his junior year and was a two-time all-conference first-team offensive lineman.
Head coach Ken Crandall left the program after the 2006 championship season, and after graduating Pirillo followed him to coach the offensive line at Southwestern College of Kansas.
“It was a fun five years but I just got burned out working 14-hour days,” Pirillo said.
So he returned home to Manteca in February of 2014. Last summer, coach Reis asked Pirillo to help run Manteca’s full-contact camp, but it was otherwise a much-needed year off from football.
“I was the guy blowing the air horn and moving teams into position for the next drill,” Pirillo said. “I had a great time doing that. When coach Reis said they needed another team for this year’s camp I was all for it because I knew what to expect.”
Pirillo worked as a substitute teacher in Stanislaus County, Tracy and Manteca last year. He is still working on his credential but will teach math at Lathrop.
“The focus was to become a teacher and then a coach,” Pirillo said. “This past March I saw the Lathrop job was open and I went for it.
“I believe I can build a program from the ground up and that’s what I’ve been holding out for,” he added. “I’ve had opportunities to be part of staffs, but I wanted to create my own product. That’s (the opportunity) I have at Lathrop. If it’s a job I can be doing for 30 years then I am going to be there coaching for 30 years.”