Harry Keough -- A soccer legend to be treasured

By Paul Gardner

This piece that I'm writing now ought to be one of sadness, but I think another quality is going to come through more strongly. I write of the death of Harry Keough. No, that's not it -- I write of Harry Keough. And the first thing to say, maybe the only thing that matters -- to me anyway -- is that Harry was quite simply the nicest person that I have known in soccer.

So I cannot write in sadness, because I see only Harry’s warm smile, and I feel only his gentle humor and endless patience with a tedious journalist. Me.

I met Harry for the first time in 1971. The occasion was the college final four, played in the Orange Bowl. It was after the semifinal in which his St Louis Billikens had beaten the University of San Francisco 3-2. A game in which I thought USF was the better team, had played the better soccer and was unlucky not to win.

Harry smiled and listened ... and then praised USF. This was no gloating, crowing winner, this was a coach who knew a lot about winning -- the Billikens, college champions in 1969 and 1970, were now on a 44-game unbeaten streak -- who knew that some wins were not quite what the scoreboard showed. I was disarmed.

In the final, St Louis lost to Howard University, 3-2. There were already rumors circulating that Howard had used ineligible players -- something that Harry might have drawn attention to in his disappointment. He did not. The smile was still there, the good humor undented. It was Harry, not me, who spoke of Howard’s brilliant winning goal.

Later the rumors were confirmed and the title was taken away from Howard. It was not, as far as I know, given to St Louis. I saw quite a lot of Harry in those years -- and I never heard him complain about that, either.

St. Louis returned to the Orange Bowl the following year and beat UCLA 4-2 for the title. I had found a new cause for complaint about St Louis -- not just their style of play, which I did not find appealing -- but their shirt numbers. They were too small, I objected, and anyway a diagonal stripe ran right through the middle of them, making them virtually unreadable. Harry smiled his way through that too.

By that time Harry and I had an ongoing disagreement over the matter of style. For me, the Billikens relied way too much on the physical side of the game -- strength, stamina, running and so on. I found the soccer side of their game rather prosaic.

Of course, Harry disagreed -- countering with numerous examples of what he considered highly skilled Billiken play -- and players. Anyway -- and again, I never remember him boasting about this -- his team was by far the most successful college team in the country -- so they were evidently getting more right than wrong.

To underline that point, Harry’s Billikens returned to the final in 1973 and won again, beating UCLA by 2-1. A great final, played in the -- as usual -- largely empty Orange Bowl. Harry spoke afterward with his usual humility and his usual smile: “There were no losers tonight.”

And again I wondered just how much longer St Louis could continue winning games against superior opponents. I still felt it was strength and power that got them through, though I began to realize that the influence of the amiable, unflappable Harry must have something to do with it.

Oh yes -- and this was the year when Harry’s first words to me in Miami were “You noticed the numbers? We’ve made them bigger!” When I did get to see the new shirts, the numbers didn’t seem that much bigger to me, and I still couldn’t read them. I didn’t tell Harry -- I just didn’t feel like being unappreciative.

The soccer and the style remained a problem. In 1974 the final four tournament abandoned the cavernous Orange Bowl and was played in St. Louis. St. Louis would surely win again, on its home turf. It was not to be. The Billikens had made the final four thanks to a 2-1 overtime win against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville -- a game that the incorrigibly honest Harry admitted his team had been lucky to win.

Even luckier was the Billikens’ 3-2 overtime win against UCLA in the semifinal. In the final, the old nemesis, Howard, awaited -- and the Billikens’ luck at last ran out. Overtime again, but it was Howard -- which had already hit the woodwork twice -- that got the winner.

The imperturbable Harry smiled and acknowledged the defeat. But I felt that things had changed. Whatever magic Harry had been working with his team -- and I was almost at the point of thinking of it as voodoo -- was no longer working.

And so we arrived at the point where any other coach, I’m sure, would have heaped criticism and scorn on me. In February 1975 I wrote -- in The Sporting News, a St. Louis publication -- a severe criticism of the St. Louis style, saying that it had stagnated, that it was being overtaken by the soccer being played in the rest of the country. I concluded that St Louis soccer was boring -- lacking in individuality, flair and inventiveness. I did not mention Harry -- but the implication was clear.

Harry did not react -- I never saw in print, nor heard from him personally -- an attack on me for my trashing of his teams. But the change took place, rather more quickly than I had anticipated; St. Louis has never won another college title.

Because of St. Louis’ absence from the finals, I saw less of Harry now -- but when we did meet up, nothing had changed, the smile was as warm as ever, the discussions about the game as sharp as ever. Of course, we discussed the famous win over England in the 1950 World Cup, but even there, Harry’s modesty was simply stunning. He told me -- something Walt Bahr also told me -- that he found it embarrassing, and not a little irritating, that the only thing people wanted to talk about with him was that victory. He felt that he -- and the U.S. national team - had achieved a good deal more than just a day of glory.

I never saw Harry play, so I can’t comment on his ability. But it must have been high -- a formidable list of trophies in club soccer with St. Louis Kutis attests to that. I look back on those years, and how unfair, how wrong it seems that Harry got only 19 caps. A time when international games were infrequent -- but surely of more value because of their rarity?

That 1950 game featured heavily in what I think was the last time I saw Harry. A trip to Brazil had been organized in 1987, part of it being a tribute to that game. Harry came along to represent the USA (Wilf Mannion, from the England team on that day, was also there), and we had a day’s outing to Belo Horizonte, where Harry and Wilf strolled around the old, deserted stadium, living an event from 37 years ago, neither of them quite sure in which direction their team had been playing when the crucial goal was scored by Joe Gaetjens.

Of course I talked at length with Harry about the game and the U.S. team. But Harry never talked much about Harry. I learned a lot about Gaetjens and the other Americans and the team preparation -- and also about the English team.

That was Harry -- a man who had achieved a great deal in soccer in its early American days when there was really no such thing as fame to be found in the sport, and certainly not money. But Harry and the players of those days were not seeking tangible rewards like that -- they enjoyed the sport, they did their best.

So in the end, the hell with my differences with Harry over soccer stylistic matters, they fade to triviality when I recall the warm smile and the abundant humanity of the man. Sadness is out of place when what I feel are pleasant memories of a thoroughly nice man. To speak of Harry in cliches may seem to do him less than honor, but I will do it anyway, with apologies -- because they really don’t make ‘em like Harry any more.

4 comments about "Harry Keough -- A soccer legend to be treasured".
  1. Millwall America, February 13, 2012 at 3:23 p.m.

    Great column Paul -- a fitting tribute to a man who joined forces with a team of semi-pro dishwashers, hearse drivers and high school teachers to beat mighty England on the game's biggest stage. RIP Harry.

  2. Sam Gonzalez, February 13, 2012 at 4:16 p.m.

    He was a great coach, and an even better person. I met him through an SLU player, and he never forgot my name. Harry was always friendly and spoke to me each time we met like we were old friends. He had no reason to remember me, except that it was his personality to do so.
    I wil never forget him, and his great humanity. If only there were more of us like him. RIP Harry. Tony SLU '75

  3. Bill Vieth, February 14, 2012 at 6:02 p.m.

    In soccer, as in life, there are takers and there are givers. Harry was a giver. He would help anyone when it came to soccer. I recall he traveled to Evansville in 1974 to give the first soccer clinic in our city. Two yrs later he agreed to play an exhibition game in Evansville v Indiana University as a fund raiser when Evansville was just beginning to field a team. The attendance was 5,200 spectators.
    Harry was a gentleman, always fair, always respectful.
    Too bad Paul Gardner never saw Harry play because he was skilled, smart and tough. They say he never missed a head ball and as I watched him when I was a teenager, then through high school and college I would agree. A player as smooth as Harry would have been difficult to find.
    Thank you for a nice article, a tribute to a wonderful man.
    Bill Vieth Sr.

  4. Stephen Hunsicker, February 17, 2012 at 7:25 p.m.

    Thanks for your kind words about Harry.
    It might not have been a good idea to mention (on 8 different occasions) your negative opinions of Saint Louis University soccer. This was probably not the time and place. I understand why you might have needed to address it once at the beginning as Harry’s reaction to your criticism exemplified his warmth and class. You made your point on the front end.
    Steve Hunsicker Jr.

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