College 2000: Stephen Negoesco: A Legacy of Greatness

Stephen Negoesco has won everything in 39 seasons at the University of San Francisco - a handful of NCAA championships included - but college soccer's winningest coach isn't about to confuse victory with what's really important: making the game better.

Ask Stephen Negoesco a question, he'll give a dissertation. Forget the question - he'll launch all on his own into a rambling soliloquy about, as he might say, "this, that and the other thing."

The legendary University of San Francisco coach, stepping down as college soccer's winningest coach after 39 seasons on "the Hilltop," is nothing if not a talker. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon than listening to him expound on whatever crosses his mind.

"I see Steve with a glass of merlot, about to unload on a story," says Sigi Schmid, whose UCLA teams battled USF for West Coast supremacy for many years. "You just sit back and relax, listen to the story. ...

"You know, he's such a unique, colorful individual. If he was in a more mainstream sport, he'd probably be an icon like Yogi Berra - with his different way of saying things, his expressions - a Casey Stengel-type of guy."

Negoesco is an icon.

Certainly to the thousands of players he taught that soccer is a thinking man's sport.

Certainly to the coaches he inspired, particularly on the West Coast, which was nothing soccer-wise before Negoesco. He was on the forefront of everything - recruiting foreign athletes, playing a national schedule, building a soccer-specific facility - and won 544 games (with two remaining) and five national championships (the NCAA vacated one for use of an ineligible player) with an elegant, intelligent brand of soccer.

Certainly at USF.

"USF is Steve Negoesco," says Earthquakes defender John Doyle, one of nearly two dozen All-Americans who played for Negoesco.

'NOT THE END OF THE WORLD.' It's difficult to imagine USF - heck, the college game - without him, not that anyone will have to: Negoesco will slide into the background as USF's "Director of Soccer," a position meant to take advantage of his close ties with alumni. Longtime assistant Erik Visser takes charge on the field.

"It's not like it's the end of the world," says Negoesco, 75. "I'm still in the game. I'm in decent health. I'll still be here, and I'll be helping with the game so the coach can get credit for a good job."

Soccer was never going to lose Negoesco. It's the one thing he always could trust.

"I think soccer was his life, but I don't think soccer was life and death to him," Doyle offers. "He knew what life and death was."

Negoesco learned early. He was born in 1925 in Jutland, N.J., but was soon on his way to Romania, to be cared for by relatives, after his mother died. He was an accomplished youth soccer player sent to a Nazi camp at 15 after the Germans discovered his American roots.

"I got friendly with the guards," Negoesco says. "They were kids, 18, 19 years old, and we found a common ground. We were all soccer players. ... So after a couple months, I said to one of them: 'You know, I've been thinking about running away.' "

The guard suggested a day, and Negoesco was on his way back to Romania, "where the Germans never thought I'd be stupid enough to go, but I was 15, what do you expect? Where do you go? You go home to Mommy, that's where you go."

Negoesco's soccer skills - good enough to gain First Division attention in Romania - enabled him to avoid a return to prison, and he landed in America after the war, finding his way to San Francisco, to visit a brother, in 1947. His next 53 years have been tied to USF and teaching soccer in the Bay Area.

The briefest of histories:

ò He was the West Coast's first first-team All-American in 1949 and helped USF to its first national title in 1950.

ò He was a founder of San Francisco's first youth soccer league in 1953, coached as many as 11 teams at one time, and won a national title in 1961.

ò He took over USF's program in 1962, adding $300 a year to his biology teacher's salary, and guided the Dons to NCAA crowns in 1966, '75, '76, '78 (vacated) and '80.

ò He built the field that carries his name, pouring "49 cubic yards of cement - lucky it was 18 years ago" - himself.

'THE REST KIND OF HAPPENED.' "I didn't try to do anything here because I wanted to establish anything," Negoesco says. "All I wanted to do was have a better team that could represent the school as good as it could be. The rest kind of happened."

He won in '66 with a heavily Latino squad, largely home-grown players. His later powerhouses were fueled by great foreign talent, among them Andy Atuegbu, Bjorn Dahl and Erik Nielsen.

"We were able in the '70s to get some foreign talent that today would be millionaires," Negoesco says. "We had four national team players from Nigeria, one First Division player from Brazil, 20-30 First Division players from Norway - several of them national team players. Those players weren't getting money in those days, so they went to college to get a degree to make a living."

It was also Negoesco's aim to spur other coaches to excellence. "The better you are," he says, "the better I'm going to have to be ... and I'm glad you caught up with me. Because it makes the game better, and I think that's the most important thing."

The dominance disappeared in the 1990s. Top foreign players turned pro, and the battle for the best Americans became fierce. All three of Negoesco's losing seasons occurred in the last dozen years. The Dons never lost seven games in a season before '89; they've lost seven or more 10 times since.

That's not what mattered most to Negoesco. His emphasis always was on teaching the game. He gave his players the freedom to be creative on the field - demanded that of them - and to make mistakes.

"You take an American kid," he says. "If he wins the game, he's going to say, 'We're better than those guys.' All the mistakes he makes - he's not analytical. But if he loses, he wants to know why he lost. 'Well, we weren't as fast as they were, and some of our passes were no good. And we had three chances to score and we missed.' Aha! Now you're addressing your shortcomings. Which makes you aware, and you're going to work to get better at that."

Negoesco says there are lessons to be gained in defeat.

"You only get it by giving them a tough schedule," he says. "And if you win, that's fine, and if you lose, that's fine, too, because you're learning. Some people say, 'You're losing all these games.' Yeah, but I'm learning."

'THINK FOR YOURSELF.' Negoesco watches USF games from the stands, or on the steps behind the flagpoles at Negoesco Field. He doesn't yell at his players or the officials, doesn't offer his players advice.

"It was always 'Think for yourself,' " Doyle says. "People say, 'Steve, what do I do?' 'What do you do? Play soccer. Think for yourself. Do what we did in training, bring it to the field.'"

Negoesco believes he could be most useful teaching other coaches to "address issues that can help the game. Because I know the problems I had with the players I got from someone else coaching the kid."

He says: "The kids are playing, but they don't know what they're doing, they don't know why they're doing what they're doing, they're just doing it. What I'm trying to teach them is why you are doing this. You have to learn the thinking game to become a player. If you can't think, you're never going to be a good soccer player."

'GAME IS GETTING BETTER.' The walls of Negoesco's office are covered with photos, hundreds of them. "Look at all these pictures," he invites. "Every picture, there's a story here. And all these people are my friends."

There's one taken in 1970 of Negoesco with his teammates from his teens in Romania. Another of the first junior team he coached, back in '53. Joe Obi, a USF player in the '50s - "He had a shot from 30 yards out," Negoesco smiles. So many more.

He's asked about his legacy. He talks about this, about that, and then:

"I've had 40 years, and we've accomplished a great deal," he says. "I'm very happy, all the good things that have happened. And we've been able to surmount all the bad things. It's all been good for the game, and the whole thing is about the game, isn't it? That's why we're here. The game is getting better, and that's what makes me happy."

by Soccer America senior editor Scott French in San Francisco.

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