Joe Morrone did it all

By almost any measurement, soccer is big these days, but it wasn't always like that. The periods of the greatest growth were in the 1960s and 1970s as spurred on by the introduction of the pro game, soccer took off at the youth and then college levels.

Those who had the greatest impact did it all, organizing the first youth clubs and getting college programs off the ground. For many of these pied-pipers, like the British players who came over to play in the NASL and settled in communities across the country, soccer had always been their entire life.

Others, like Joe Morrone, came late to the sport.

"I think the first time I saw a soccer game, I was playing in it," Morrone said earlier this year in an interview with Jeff Jacobs of the Hartford Courant. "My technical skills weren't good and neither was our team."

Morrone was in college then, attending the University of Massachusetts. Growing up in the 1950s in Worcester, Mass., he didn't play soccer but he played everything else, baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey, all the American sports. He played baseball at UMass, becoming a lefty when he hurt his right elbow. He later played lacrosse at UMass and that led to a job right out of college coaching lacrosse and soccer at Middlebury.

Morrone always looked a little out of place in the world of soccer. He was famous for the clipboard he carried around, like a football or basketball coach might carry. He says he carried it around because he could use it to get his aggression out. Breaking a clipboard over his knee after a tough loss was safer, he quickly found out, than putting his fist into a wall.

Morrone's tactics -- gimmicks, you might say -- were straight out of American sports. He was derided for the "corner stall," his version of basketball's four corners, to kill the clock at the end of the game. He'd have players take throw-ins from their knees until that stunt was outlawed. How was that possible in the first place? College soccer rules have always been different than FIFA rules.

Morrone knew little about soccer when he started, but he learned and he innovated. He was one of the first college coaches to venture overseas, one of the first to develop drills for goalkeepers and one of the first to put these drills on film, thanks to a government exchange program that landed him in Poland in the mid-1960s. He started an offseason indoor program at UConn.

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Morrone said when he started coaching at UConn in 1969 there might be a half dozen fans at its games -- and that included his wife, Elizabeth Ann, and three children, Melissa, Joe and Bill. By the early 1980s, UConn had a soccer stadium with bleachers and a scoreboard, and the Huskies packed the place. There was a boosters club, and there were media, lots of media. Many of the small papers across Connecticut covered UConn soccer home and away. Morrone introduced "Soccer Sunday." Before then, college teams rarely played on Sundays. Total attendance in 1983 was 64,535 -- an unofficial NCAA record that held until 2010 when UC Santa Barbara drew 70,471 fans.

The Huskies weren't very good that first year -- they went 3-9-0 in 1969 -- but they got better. And they got better players. Morrone was one of the first coaches to aggressively recruit in the ethnic leagues of New York and Connecticut, and he landed players like Haitian-American Frantz Innocent, Erhardt Kapp, who was born in Romania and grew up in Germany, and Pedro De Brito, who was born in the Cape Verdes Islands. UConn went on to win a national championship in 1981.

Later, as other programs, particularly in the ACC, modeled Morrone's recruiting and build up their facilities, it became harder for Morrone to recruit as some players were turned off by his old-school methods. Leaving wasn't easy -- he was pushed out -- but when Morrone retired after 39 years of coaching at Middlebury and UConn, he had a career record of 422-199-64. He stayed at UConn, teaching in the Department of Kinesiology until 2014.

But Morrone's influence on soccer extended far beyond UConn. He started the Mansfield Soccer Club and along with Alistair Bell got the Connecticut Junior Soccer Association off the ground in 1972. Morrone's sons, Joe and Bill, both U.S. youth internationals and college stars, played at Mansfield Soccer Club, though its most famous alumnus is U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who then got his start in administration working with the CJSA in its ODP program.

Morrone was president of both the NSCAA and NISOA, the only person to head both the national coaches and referees associations. In 1991, Soccer America named Morrone one of the 20 most influential people in American soccer over the previous 20 years, the first 20 years of its existence.

He didn't know it at the time, but Morrone had a big impact on Soccer America's existence as well. Soccer America founder Clay Berling tells the story of being ready to pull the plug in the early 1980s when out of the blue he received a letter from Morrone, telling him how important Soccer America was to the burgeoning soccer community and that he valued what Soccer America was doing. There was no way Berling could give up, and soon Soccer America started to grow. Berling received the NSCAA Honor Award in 1996, a year after Morrone was the recipient.

Morrone passed away at the age of 79 on Thursday morning at his home in Mansfield. He had pancreatic cancer and was told in May he had three months to live. He lived four months, long enough to watch the start of a new college season in Storrs.

Sunday night, UConn played UCSB -- the school that broke UConn's attendance record -- in the rain at Morrone Stadium. The Huskies, who had not scored at home in four games, trailed 1-0 with 10 minutes to play in the second half when they rallied to score two goals and win, 2-1. The UConn players ran over to celebrate with Morrone, seated in a wheelchair.

"I told the guys before the game, 'If we're going to win, this has to be for Coach Morrone," UConn junior Kwame Awuah told the Courant. "Nothing here would be [here] without him -- field, everything."

Yes, Joe Morrone did it all.

Calling hours will be held at Tolland, Conn., Memorial Funeral Home on Sept. 24 and Sept. 25 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. each night. A funeral mass will be held on Sept. 26 at St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel on the UConn campus at 10 a.m.

6 comments about "Joe Morrone did it all".
  1. Carlos Almeida, September 18, 2015 at 8:14 a.m.

    Thank you Coach! You did so much for so many and shaped so many lives. Not just as soccer players. Great leader. Great man. You will be missed. Rest in peace.

  2. Keith Tabatznik, September 18, 2015 at 8:58 a.m.

    I was 24 as the head coach at Georgetown University in 1984. I was in awe of Coach Morrone and his program. It was the yardstick for all of us in the BIG EAST and college soccer. He pushed me to get GU to improve the program and facilities. Joe was a larger then life figure whom throughout the years of our competitive battles remained a true professional win, lose or draw. A work ethic second to none, Joe was an inspiration to me as a young coach and became a good friend as a veteran coach and in post college coaching years. I will miss seeing Joe but know his presence will never be lost from college soccer and of course never from UConn. So much to thank him for...RIP Joe

  3. Santiago 1314 replied, September 18, 2015 at 10:51 a.m.

    "LARGER THAN LIFE" That says it All...RIP... Peace to his Family...

  4. Marc Bailey, September 18, 2015 at 11:23 a.m.

    Thank you for everything, Coach. I'll never forget listening to the radio broadcast of that game in 1981! In addition to all that PK mentions above, Big Joe also created the model for soccer camps (which were rare in the 70's and early 80's), and for community relations. Every kid in Mansfield and the surrounding towns attended his camp during the summers, staffed by his players and top local coaches, and developed a relationship with the UConn program that not only created a built-in local fanbase, but also gave those kids the kind of soccer fan experience that really wasn't available most places in the US. We got to see the best players around on the field every week, we had a youth academy of sorts, and we got to cheer twice as loudly when one of our own "made it". That's a development environment every youth coach wants for his or her players, and Joe Morrone created it 40 years ago. On top of all that, his programs inspired such a love of soccer that many of the kids who grew up in that area are still active in youth, high school, college, and even professional soccer to this day, and are faithfully passing on that legacy. Best wishes to Joe Jr., Bill, and Melissa.

  5. Kent James, September 18, 2015 at 1:17 p.m.

    Joe Morrone was certainly synonymous with college soccer in the 1980s. He was one of the pioneers, and without him, we'd be years behind where we are now. Especially impressive given how late he came to the game.

  6. Bill Morrison, September 18, 2015 at 3:03 p.m.

    I'll never forget the praise from coach Morrone after one of our Mansfield Soccer Club matches in the early 70s - probably one of the few games I ever played well! He will be missed...

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